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Chief Executive Carrie Lam at the Legislative Council on Wednesday. Photo: Sam Tsang

Does Carrie Lam’s ambitious plan to overhaul the Hong Kong government go far enough?

  • The revamp, if approved, would lead to a division of portfolios across bureaus on a scale not seen in 15 years
  • But some critics ask whether combining housing and development, for example, would better position government to tackle housing shortage
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has used the first meeting of the new Legislative Council term to unveil details of the biggest overhaul of the government since 2007, but critics have questioned whether the restructuring goes far enough.

The plan calls for overhauling roughly half of the existing bureaus. Separating the housing portfolio from the ­existing Transport and Housing Bureau is the most eye-catching suggestion of the seven-point proposal she announced.

The new bureau would then dedicate itself to resolving the housing shortage, while the Transport and Logistics Bureau would focus on infrastructure and consolidating the city’s status as an aviation hub.

Lam’s blueprint calls for increasing the number of policy bureaus from 13 to 15, one of which would be the new Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau.

A government source said the administration hoped to “get everything ready” by the end of March, so the chief executive-elect voted in at the end of that month could proceed with appointing the top talent to lead the bureaus.

“We hope to have the restructuring plan passed by Legco by May,” the insider said.

The source noted the last reshuffle was carried out 15 years ago and many key new policy areas had risen to the forefront since then, including the greater integration of Hong Kong with the rest of the nation and the Greater Bay Area plan, Beijing’s blueprint to integrate Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities into a finance and technology powerhouse.

“We need to keep our government structure abreast of the times,” the insider said.

The changes will cost the government an extra HK$32 million (US$4 million) a year.

Explaining why the housing and development bureaus were not merged, the government source said the Development Bureau already had a heavy burden and wide-ranging portfolios.

The overhaul calls for the creation of a new Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau. Photo: Dickson Lee

The bureau had two permanent secretaries, who were senior career civil servants, one for planning and lands and the other for works.

“This division of work has been proven effective. We do not hope to add another permanent secretary to further enlarge the bureau,” the insider said.

But Chan Kim-ching, founder of land concern group Liber Research Community, said the restructuring plan would not solve the housing crunch. Crucially, the city did not push ahead with plans for a vacancy tax which would have penalised developers for holding onto unsold flats in hopes the price would rise.

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Lawmakers shelved the plan first announced in 2018, saying there was not enough time to scrutinise the proposal, and the government decided to drop the matter in June last year. But some developers have started to slow down the release of unsold flats.

Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), suggested that a combined housing and development bureau could better tackle the housing shortage.

“How could the government shorten the queue for public housing flats if land and housing policies are not overseen by a single bureau?” she said after the Legco meeting on Wednesday.

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Housing Society chairman Walter Chan Kar-lok agreed, saying the creation of a designated bureau would be more conducive to coordinating and speeding up housing development.

Lam also wants to turn the Environment Bureau into the Environment and Ecology Bureau, tasked with overseeing food safety in addition to existing areas, as the Post earlier reported. The renamed bureau will also handle environmental hygiene as well as agriculture and fisheries.

The existing Food and Health Bureau would be known as just the Health Bureau and focus solely on medical and health policies.

The government source said the duties of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, currently under the Food and Health Bureau, were highly diverse, ranging from domestic waste and mosquito treatment to street cleaning and columbariums.

“The government hopes to place it under the revamped Environment and Ecology Bureau to streamline the department and make its policies more in line with environmentally friendly principles,” the insider said.

DAB lawmaker Starry Lee says a single bureau should oversee land and housing policy. Photo: Dickson Lee

The Home Affairs Bureau would be renamed the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau and primarily tasked with carrying out a comprehensive review of district administration.

“The revamped bureau will put more emphasis on youth issues. There were so many incidents related to young people in recent years. We should take the initiative to directly reach out to more youth,” the source said.

Lam’s plan also calls for turning the Innovation and Technology Bureau into the Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau.

The insider added that the idea of forming a development and policy reform unit, as suggested by the DAB, would only be considered by the chief executive-elect who would assess the need of having a new unit to steer strategic planning. The Hong Kong leadership election takes place on March 27.