Email lifts lid on discord at top of Hong Kong urban renewal body

Outgoing managing director Iris Tam tells of 'fundamental differences' with chairman Victor So over authority's finances and 'social mission'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 1:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 3:11am

The managing director of the Urban Renewal Authority revealed in an email to staff on Tuesday that she left because of "fundamental differences" with its chairman over its direction, to which the chairman responded that "our social mission has not changed".

As was reported on Tuesday, Iris Tam Siu-ying abruptly quit the authority on Monday because she could not see eye to eye with chairman Victor So Hing-woh on its philosophy and mission.

In the staff-wide email, seen by the Post, Tam said it was unacceptable for the authority to act as a developer or an agent providing land to developers.

"It is a difficult decision but I am afraid [my leaving] is in the best interest of URA as there are fundamental differences between the chairman and me in the understanding of URA's philosophy, mission and direction," Tam wrote to her colleagues.

Tam took office in March 2013, three months before So became chairman. Her abrupt resignation came amid increasing public uncertainty about the role of the statutory body, which was founded in 2001 to replace the Land Development Corporation in the role of facilitating redevelopment of old buildings.

Established with HK$10 billion in government seed money, the body is required to run on a self-financing basis. It recorded a loss of HK$2.3 billion in the financial year of 2013-14, though a year ago it said it had accumulated a HK$14 billion surplus since its founding.

As housing prices have skyrocketed citywide, the authority has faced mounting criticism for building expensive flats in collaboration with private developers. But it is still under financial pressure as costs increase. So had pushed for a more aggressive moneymaking approach.

Tam's email added: "URA must always put its social mission before profit considerations in selecting sites for redevelopment, helping owners rehabilitate their buildings, and contributing towards heritage preservation and revitalisation.

"I find it totally unacceptable to position URA as a developer or a land assembly agent to supply land for developers."

So, who said when he took office that "the URA is theoretically also a developer", hit back at suggestions the organisation was just seeking profit under his leadership. "I only wanted everyone to have some new thinking about ways to work more efficiently and effectively … Our social mission has not changed," he told Cable TV after a URA board meeting yesterday.

"It is impossible for the URA to make a surplus. All our projects are making losses now. As a public body shouldn't we minimise losses?" So said.

At yesterday's board yesterday, members unanimously asked Tam to stay but they failed to sway her.

Tam will leave her role as managing director on June 30, nine months earlier than her original contract stipulated.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who had appointed both Tam and So to their posts, declined to comment on the resignation.

Pressed by reporters, Leung said: "The URA is an important statutory body in pushing forward urban renewal and other relevant matters, and we value the personnel matters of all statutory bodies, but we won't comment on a particular case."

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung