Will Hong Kong’s ‘big debate’ on land supply just be led by fat cats?
Even as the government promises to keep vested interests out of the search for land for new homes, it’s not clear if it’ll have the political will to follow public opinion
But recently, a woman’s story of how Hong Kong’s housing crunch had forced her into a cubicle home in an industrial building tugged at his heartstrings, and underscored how public policy could transform lives.
The woman, who looked middle-aged, had to vacate her private flat because of rising rents, but has been stuck on the waiting list for a low-rent public flat for four years.
“She said she didn’t know what to do,” said Wong, the former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers.
“Her helplessness struck me greatly. She was uninterested in what measures the government would use to find more land, as long as the land is used to build more housing.”
The process of trying to find land on which to build decent and affordable housing in Hong Kong is likely to become a common topic of discussion over the course of the next five months. That is how long a public consultation on 18 options for easing the space-starved city’s rising demand for homes, offices, and public spaces will last.
The exercise began last Thursday, led by a government-appointed task force of which Wong is the vice-chairman. There are 21 other non-civil servant members in the group, such as Professor Chau Kwong-wing, a real estate expert of the University of Hong Kong, Cheung Hok-ming, a rural leader and former lawmaker, and veteran social worker Ho Hei-wah.
While the process is still in its infancy, a number of prominent public figures, some with significant political influence, have caused concern by already endorsing, or rejecting, some of the options in which they hold an interest.
Hong Kong’s land supply task force is praiseworthy, but has the Lands Department done enough to identify housing sites?
The committee has promised to not let those voices dominate the debate, and focus on the choices made by the public, as they address the city’s projected shortfall of at least 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land for development in the next three decades.
It has pledged that the exercise, dubbed the “big debate” by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, will reach as many people as possible.
“We see it this way,” Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, the task force chairman, said. “If 10 per cent of people are directly affected by the proposals and 10 per cent have interests in the proposals, we hope to hear more from the 80 per cent in the middle.”
But, how successful will they be? Is a report with real suggestions for how to proceed likely, or will their efforts be just another valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to shape a fundamental piece of public policy from the ground up?
Can the influential minority even be ignored?
Looking through the consultation booklet’s 76 pages, which will be presented to the public through a website and some 100 forums, group discussions and exhibitions, the shadow of vested interest seems to lurk behind every option.
These politicians, business leaders and others are the most willing to fight tooth and nail for their cause, and have the resources to do so.
For example, Hong Kong’s three major developers – Henderson Land Development, New World Development and Sun Hung Kai Properties – have acquired a combined reserve of some 1,000 hectares of farmland in the New Territories.
These conglomerates stand to profit from a proposal of public-private co-development, where the government provides infrastructure to these otherwise inaccessible sites in exchange for a certain proportion of affordable housing.
Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing, however, holds little farmland. It is another proposal – constructing homes on top of the Kwai Tsing Container Terminals – that will benefit Li, whose business empire CK Hutchison Holdings operates 12 berths. Wheelock Properties, through its Wharf Holdings subsidiary, operates another seven.
Prominent business figures close to both groups have already endorsed this option. One is MTR Corporation chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang, who is also an independent director of Husky Energy, controlled by Hutchison.
Another is Joseph Chow Ming-kuen, a former president of Hong Kong Institute of Engineers now advising Wheelock subsidiary Harbour Centre Development.
Chow said he had never discussed the proposal with Wharf or any other developers, and he only spoke for himself.
“I don’t even know those people, how can I discuss it with them?” Chow said.
Fred Ma told the Post he had never talked to the Li family about the terminal proposal.
Chow’s long-time friend, veteran architect Rocco Yim, also raised eyebrows by backing the option, as he usually keeps his distance from public debates. Yim, who said Chow invited him to explore the possibility, expressed willingness to design a “city in the sky” on top of the terminals.
Throwing a few spanners in the works
Besides the traditional vested interests, the government is also having to deal with complaints from a surprising source.
The city’s rural leaders, who in the past have been accused of thwarting plans to build 13,000 public flats on a brownfield site in Wang Chau, Yuen Long, are now upset that the task force has not looked into the development potential of their ancestral land.
In a letter to the task force, Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, chairman of rural affairs advisory body Heung Yee Kuk, claimed there were some 2,400 hectares of ancestral land, and said he was “shocked and regrets” that such land was never put on the task force’s agenda.
An ancestral lot is collectively owned by an indigenous clan, and can only be sold with a consensus among all members of the clan. The Kuk suggested the government adopt a compulsory sale mechanism, where selling would be possible after about 80 per cent of clan members had agreed.
It is not yet clear how this new development would affect the options being considered.
Boosting land supply not just choosing between country park development and reclamation, concerned parties argue
Then there is the likelihood that pro-establishment lawmakers might bring their own preferences to bear, should the government go ahead with reclaiming the 170-hectare Fanling golf course.
Community groups insist the golf course should be razed to build homes, and it is one of the options being presented to the public.
However, one task force member, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounted a closed-door meeting with government-friendly lawmakers representing the business sector.
“What surprised me is that the pro-establishment lawmakers are not supportive of the government at all when it’s their interests on the line,” he said.
“We were asked to leave the golf course alone … and cooperate with developers to build homes on their land.”
But Stanley Chiang Chi-wai, chairman of the Lok Ma Chau China-Hong Kong Freight Association, who has been vocal in his opposition to developing brownfield sites, pointed out: “If you take away land where others have interests in, you are picking fights and creating conflicts.”
He opposed developing brownfields, and building on the Tuen Mun River Trade Terminal, because both would affect the cargo industry’s container storage spaces. Instead, Chiang said, the government should go for proposals with few stakeholders.
“Reclamation is Hong Kong’s only way out,” he said. “An economy-driven city should not have too many concerns. Human beings are the most important.”
His view, though, was vehemently rejected by Greenpeace’s campaigner Andy Chu Kong.
“If the government only avoids vested interests and opts for the low-hanging fruit, maybe it should be called a private developer instead,” Chu said. “A proper government should look at what’s best for a balanced and sustainable development.”
The task force has been preparing for this public consultation since its creation last August. In the intervening months it has considered 20 proposals, and now has a shortlist of 18 for public debate.
Task force members are hopeful parties now opposing some of the options will be swayed by public sentiment and come around.
Stanley Wong, who will draft a final report about public opinions after the consultation, believes the government will honour the majority’s choices.
“If the government doesn’t go ahead with what the majority chooses, how is it going to explain that to people?” he said.
However, there is also the question of how accurately the exercise will gauge public opinion.
During the exercise, surveys will be carried out online, and at 40 rolling street interview booths. There will also be a telephone survey picking interviewees at random.
Dr Victor Zheng Wan-tai, coordinator of the Telephone Survey Research Lab at Chinese University, said the online and street booth surveys were “highly likely to be manipulated or rigged”, because stakeholders could easily organise survey taking en masse.
“I’m not very hopeful for the consultation,” Zheng said. “At the end of the day, the government still needs political strength to tackle different interests.”
The Development Bureau has committed HK$12 million to the campaign, including awarding contracts to eight companies specialising in public relations, IT and publishing. The money is being spent on promoting the campaign and managing the website.
A look at the government’s past record perhaps explains Zheng’s lack of enthusiasm.
The last such consultation took place in 2012, when the public was asked to choose from a list of six land supply options, such as reclamation and developing caverns.
Opinion surveys concluded that people remained divided over reclamation, but the government argued it was the locations the public was concerned about, rather than reclamation itself. It went ahead to shortlist five sites.
Yet, even after disregarding public opinion, the government has not followed through with the conclusions of the 2012 consultation, and the five suggested sites are again included as options in this survey.
The prolonged nature of these consultations, and the lack of any meaningful action that typically follows, means demand has far outstripped supply. The result, according to Shen Jianfa, chairman of the Chinese University’s department of geography and resource management, is that prices have kept shooting up.
Shen warned that the city had lagged behind Singapore and neighbouring cities in the Greater Bay Area, where land was readily available.
Greg Wong believes Hong Kong’s high office rents and housing costs – the priciest in the world – have deterred people from coming to the city, and have driven several global corporations to set up their Asian headquarters in Singapore.
To Wong, the city can only gain real competitiveness when its own residents are able to enjoy more affordable housing and bigger homes. This, he said, could only be achieved with more land.
Some 283,000 families and individuals are now queuing for the city’s public rental housing. Although the government targets an average waiting time of three years, it was in fact 4.7 years as of December. During the long wait, many are forced to live in substandard housing in the expensive private market. About 210,000 are holed up in subdivided flats that are less than hygienic and have fire safety risks, although not all are waiting for public housing.
“Only when people have a comfortable home can they work happily and be more productive,” Wong said. “Then they can provide better education to their children, who in time will become important talents to the city.”
Still, whether this big debate can finally provide a better living environment for Hong Kong’s residents is anybody’s guess.