Hong Kong housing

Land supply task force signals new government approach to tackling Hong Kong’s housing problem

Committee of urban planners and representatives from social housing, environment, economics and politics – and no major property developers – suggests shift of focus

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 2:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 11:14pm

Space-starved Hong Kong is to get a new land search committee made up of experts from a host of professional backgrounds, which aims to get a public consensus on how to best tackle the city’s housing crunch.

The task force is made up of urban planning professionals and representatives from social housing, environment, economics and politics but has excluded big developers, pro-democracy politicians and activists – leading some critics to question whether the discussion would be too one-sided.

“The task force should launch a big debate in the community,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Tuesday.

“The government already has details of various land sources, such as reclamation outside Victoria Harbour, redevelopment in old districts and developing the brownfield sites in the New Territories.

But better relaying public opinion to the government about these sites is the job for this task force.”

Lam said the crack team would review and evaluate land supply options and engage the community in discussions about their pros and cons.

She said members were appointed for just 18 months, instead of the more common term of two to three years, because land supply and housing were urgent issues.

The task force includes 22 non-official members from various disciplines as well as eight government representatives, bringing it to a total of 30 members.

Task force chairman Stanley Wong Yuen-fai said he estimated that the task force would launch its first public engagement exercise by the first or second quarter of next year.

Since 2013, the government has identified 217 sites to help meet a target of building 460,000 new flats. However, it has conceded that it will fall short of its aim of building 44,000 public sector flats.

Authorities are grappling with a backlog of 277,800 applicants for public housing who have to wait an average of four years and eight months for a home, Housing Authority figures at the end of June showed.

With space at a premium in Hong Kong, much of the debate on land supply has become greatly polarised, with members of the public at odds with each other on how to move forward with solutions to free up land for housing and other development.

A number of topics and proposals have sparked controversy, such as developing protected country park land with relatively low ecological and public enjoyment value, and reclaiming large swathes of land off the coast of Lantau Island.

Some have pointed fingers at powerful rural leaders and developers for holding up a substantial number of brownfield sites in the New Territories.

Task force member Chau Kwong-wing, who is an expert in housing policy at the University of Hong Kong, said he believed the lack of public consensus was the biggest bottleneck in tackling the city’s land shortage.

“It’s not really a technical difficulty, it’s more of a political problem,” Chau said.

But those outside of the task force were critical of whether it would be able to propel any meaningful discussion.

Former lawmaker in the architecture, surveying and planning sector Edward Yiu Chung-yim said he doubted that the task force was going to come up with any groundbreaking solutions, or discuss any open and liberal ideas.

“It’s obvious from the composition of the task force that the government is hoping to utilise the expertise and credibility of these experts to convince the public and be the middleman,” Yiu said.

Chairman of policy think tank Land Watch, Lee Wing-tat, said the group should have included local experts that were seen to be more critical of the government, such as southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman and Liber Research Community researcher Chan Kim-ching.

“Many of the members’ views seem to be very homogenous. But if their aim was to have a big debate to get public consensus, I don’t see how it could mean anything which these people have such similar views,” Lee said, pointing out that at least five of them supported developing country parks.

The committee will hold its first meeting next Wednesday.

Task force chairman Wong dismissed suggestions that the discussion would be too one-sided or end up blindly supporting government initiatives.

“I don’t believe the committee will be able to override this public consensus that will be built upon widespread consultation,” Wong said.