Train of thought on MTR flats finally arrives

Former Hong Kong transport and housing minister Anthony Cheung says the rail giant should not automatically be given development rights above new stations; why didn’t he say so when he was in office?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 6:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 6:44am

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is half right about the MTR Corporation. The rail company should not automatically be given development rights atop new stations for its subway service expansion, according to the former transport and housing minister.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see how opening those sites to public tender would help increase the supply of public housing. It would only open another avenue for private developers to dominate the real estate market.

They would bid for such desirable sites, but not for building public flats. It’s not by accident that many investors consider the MTR more as a private developer than a rail operator.

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“To be fair, they should be open for tender, the government should not favour one company only, unless the company always thinks of the public interest,” Cheung said.

The only conceivable way Cheung’s suggestion could work is for the government, which is the majority shareholder of the MTR, to withdraw private development rights and instead build public flats in their places.

But of course, this would mean the MTR could not use profits generated by housing development – hitherto its financing model – to pay for its infrastructure projects, and the government would end up paying for them.

All these issues would have been very relevant when Cheung was the transport and housing chief during the previous administration of Leung Chun-ying. You wonder why he didn’t speak up when he could have done something.

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However, the Sha Tin-Central link will be completed in 2021 and the cross-border express rail ending in West Kowloon will open soon. Given all the controversies, delays, cost overruns and scandals that have dogged both mega projects, it would be wise for the MTR to lay low for a while.

In any case, there are no big projects on the horizon for the MTR, unless the government could convince the public to commit to more reclamation and major urbanisation on Lantau Island – more controversies, anyone? – in its search to increase land supply.

It is interesting, though, that Cheung is speaking up now, a phenomenon observed time and again with retired civil servants or ministers. Once they leave office, they start talking like real human beings, often with sense and intelligence.

Some even join worthy or controversial causes. You only wish they had displayed the same courage when they were in a position to do something useful.