Incoming chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu visits Yau Mei Tai residents on April 24. Photo: Handout
Mike Rowse
Mike Rowse

A target for Hong Kong’s next chief executive: 200,000 flats in the Northern Metropolis by 2027

  • With the wait for public housing reaching a historic high, the new government must set a specific and unambiguous target
  • The Northern Metropolis is a good place to start because land in the New Territories already exists. What we need is the willpower to use it for public good
News that the wait for public housing had reached a two-decade high of 6.1 years, against a target of three years, adds new urgency to the pledge by incoming chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu to give priority to solving the problem. The latest government estimate is that Hong Kong should aim to provide 430,000 housing units over 10 years.
There are some who say the estimate is excessive because of emigration, or because fertility levels have fallen and families are getting smaller. But immigration from the mainland and elsewhere can always pick up. Let us just accept for discussion purposes that the number is very big.
As he sits down to start addressing the issue, Lee needs to be very careful. There is a danger the outgoing administration will be feeding him lots of micro projects to get off to a quick start: an unused school site here, a small parcel of open space there, a slice from a golf course to demonstrate “resolve” and ability to stand up to “vested interests”. But if he really wants to make an impact, Lee needs to think big, and strategically, and remain true to his “ result-oriented” philosophy.
The question is not how many houses he can produce by Christmas, or in his first 100 days or any other short-term horizon, but how big a dent he will have made in the problem by the end of his five-year term.

Lee needs to set an ambitious target for housing units over his term. It is important that the target be specific and unambiguous, and incapable of being manipulated. Let me explain.

Every year, following the policy address, the government issues a report on progress of its pledges from the previous year. Public servants have no wish to make a rod for their backs, so the language of the promise contains as much wiggle room as possible.

The government promises to strive to achieve a certain thing. As long as it has strived, it has delivered. It promises to introduce or pursue a particular proposal. As long as that proposal was pursued, then irrespective of the outcome the promise was kept. In this way, the progress report can almost always be positive, and the language triumphant.

If this all sounds a trifle theoretical, let me quote an example. Does anyone remember luxury taxis? The plan was they would be clean, well maintained, with polite, well-behaved drivers, all for a higher fare. The promise was to consult on such a scheme. Well, this hare-brained idea was duly floated and shot down by the Legislative Council. So was this a failure? Not at all. The pledge was to consult on the idea and it got considered. Success! And now at least we have the higher fares. See what I mean?

Lee should pledge to construct 200,000 housing units in a new town in the northern New Territories by 2027.

No bluster, no weasel words, instead a specific number in a specified place by a certain date. I deliberately chose the Northern Metropolis rather than East Lantau because of timing issues. The latter project is not as bad an idea as its many critics have queued up to claim. But the reclamation process alone will take a big bite out of Lee’s five-year term, whereas land in the New Territories already exists. What we need is the willpower to use it for public good.


Hong Kong has until 2049 to fix its housing crisis, but is it possible?

Hong Kong has until 2049 to fix its housing crisis, but is it possible?

Apart from numbers, there are also the questions of breakdown and size. Let us provisionally say 70 per cent for the public sector, with the balance private. The public-sector share should be split equally between rentals and the Home Ownership Scheme. All these flats are to be between 500 and 700 square feet. Let the developers cope with the smaller and larger ends of the market, but absolutely nothing below 280 sq ft for singletons.

Size matters: is a 700 sq ft home too much to ask for Hong Kong families?

There will be critics who claim the target is too ambitious or merely a public relations stunt. The prime job of the new minister will be to make them eat their words. One of Lee’s ambitions is to change the mindset of the civil service. What could be better for the purpose than forging a dynamic team dedicated to achieving a difficult but worthy objective. An example to inspire everyone.

Initially, progress will be slow. Much of the first year will be taken up with complex gazetting procedures for the resumption of private land and the approval of railway and highway alignments. Much of the second year will be spent on letting contracts for land formation and making provision for utilities (Will we need new reservoirs? Should we be buying electricity from mainland suppliers, or at least opening up the market?).

But these two years will not be wasted as the time can be spent planning detailed layouts and arranging off-site prefabrication production facilities. Much of the construction on site will only start in year three. But as units are transported into the Northern Metropolis and assembled in place, public excitement will surely grow. We will have created a public project the whole community can get behind.

Our incoming chief executive is no doubt interviewing candidates for the post of housing secretary. He should put this target to each of them. Anyone who says it is not possible, or offers only to try his best, should be thanked for coming and politely shown the door. The person who takes a deep breath and promises to go for it should be hired on the spot.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises