Carrie Lam policy address 2018
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Carrie Lam attends the unveiling of a new hotel. Photo: Sam Tsang

Who will benefit most from Carrie Lam’s vision for Hong Kong? Real estate developers, of course

Albert Cheng says the chief executive’s Lantau reclamation project and other housing proposals seem designed to benefit big business, starting with the mainland Chinese construction sector

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is certainly getting bolder as Hong Kong’s chief executive. In fact, you could say she has become overly confident. Her second policy address is a clear demonstration to the public of how the government puts the business sector – in particular, real estate developers – first.

Seemingly unaware of her sliding popularity ratings, Lam has dropped another political bombshell, the “ Lantau Tomorrow Vision” plan to build artificial islands in the middle of the sea off Lantau Island. The scale of the project is ridiculous; even former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is having trouble getting behind the plan.
To be honest, the public might not actually be against reclamation; however, Lam needs to justify why brownfield sites, farmland and a golf course are lower on her agenda. The proposed artificial island, estimated to be 1,700 hectares, could cost up to HK$500 billion. Factor in the transport links to Hong Kong Island and Tuen Mun, and the bill could run to HK$1 trillion – almost all of Hong Kong’s reserves, excluding delays and budget overruns.
Lam’s announcement of the 1,700-hectare project came before the official Task Force on Land Supply could release the results of its public consultation on options including a 1,000-hectare Lantau reclamation plan. Why has she expanded the project overnight? Because she wants to. It’s as clear as day that mainland China’s construction sector will be the biggest winner. Sure, although infrastructure such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the Express Rail Link may deliver economic benefits to the city, the actual amount is in doubt.
The policy address also highlights a land sharing scheme. The proposal aims to release the development potential of 1,000 hectares of privately owned farmland in the New Territories. This is another way of benefiting developers.
When Lam was development secretary, she tried to tackle, without success, the problem of unauthorised building works in the New Territories. As chief executive now, she has proposed relaxing restrictions on rooftop solar panels on small houses in the New Territories. This is tantamount to allowing illegal structures.
More apparent collusion is on the cards. Lam has revisited one of her old ideas, converting industrial buildings into transitional housing, in her policy address. Industrial buildings became popular with developers after she first proposed the idea years ago. In 2015, former pro-establishment lawmaker Ambrose Lau Hon-chuen was named as a controller of an industrial building that had been converted into subdivided flats, although he said his company merely held some rights to the building on the owner’s behalf. Basically, the chief executive seems to be legalising illegal subdivided flats in industrial buildings.

Lastly, in the name of easing traffic congestion, Lam plans to lower the toll for the Western Harbour Tunnel to HK$50 and raise those for the other two cross-harbour tunnels. However, if she really wanted to solve the problem, she would have considered buying back the western tunnel, whose contract with the operating company ends in 2023, and making all three tunnels toll-free.

Also, with the near completion of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, did Lam need to adjust the tolls? The elephant in the room is that the new measure would be for the benefit of the mainland-related capital behind the Western Harbour Tunnel.

Carrie Lam plans to lower the toll for the Western Harbour Tunnel and raise those for the other two cross-harbour tunnels. Photo: Edward Wong

Hongkongers are not particularly interested in politics. However, they will not be bystanders when big businesses look set to profit at the expense of the public. Last week, thousands answered the call of concern groups and protested against the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” plan.

The anger is a warning to Lam and her governance. If she continues with her “take it or leave it” attitude and refuses to take public opinion into consideration, her administration is doomed to fail.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lam’s vision puts real estate developers first