Mixed report card for Hong Kong’s leader: good marks on housing issues but slow progress in social welfare and innovation
Chief executive is expected to focus on transitional housing push and use of reclaimed land for public flats, with all eyes on how she will word issue on national security law in coming policy address
Hong Kong’s leader has made headway in tackling the city’s housing crisis a year after her maiden policy address, but lawmakers say her progress on key social welfare and innovation issues is “far too slow”.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor managed to check off most of the nine housing initiatives proposed in her policy address last October, with only one issue left out: converting industrial buildings into transitional housing.
She is expected to make transitional housing in general a “top priority” in her coming policy address on Wednesday, according to Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan.
The plan is aimed at alleviating the burden of those living in subdivided flats while in the queue for public rental housing, but the government has been criticised for leaving this mostly to NGOs.
Over the past year, Lam introduced a Starter Homes scheme – a subsidised housing scheme to help young, middle-class families get on the property ladder – with some 450 flats under the Urban Renewal Authority set to go on sale by December.
The Housing Authority, following Lam’s proposals, endorsed two other regular schemes targeted at helping more public housing residents and low-income families buy subsidised flats.
“I’d give her a passing grade for her performance on housing this year since she did show her determination on some issues,” said Lee Wing-tat, chairman of think tank Land Watch.
The government-appointed Task Force on Land Supply will also submit a report recommending a land supply strategy by the end of the year. It is based on a five-month public consultation on how to plug a predicted 1,200-hectare shortage of land in the next 30 years.
For transitional social housing, industry players complained of lacklustre effort on the government’s part.
Lam last year proposed to explore the idea of converting industrial buildings into transitional housing, but the government has not given any updates on the issue since.
“With so many people in the public housing queue and such a dire housing supply shortage, the government’s going to have to do a lot more in this year’s policy address on providing transitional housing,” said Anthony Chiu Kwok-wai, executive director of the Federation of Public Housing Estates.
Lee agreed, adding that authorities should proactively push for the social housing movement, instead of leaving NGOs to tackle it with a piecemeal approach.
Lam’s top policy adviser Bernard Chan said on Saturday transitional housing was expected to be a “top priority” in her second policy address, with another source saying one of the initiatives included converting three industrial buildings in Kwun Tong for such purposes.
On Wednesday, Lam is expected to follow last year’s practice of giving a short speech in the Legislative Council, a departure from her predecessor Leung Chun-ying’s routine of a long address, according to a person familiar with the situation.
According to sources, Lam will reiterate the government’s constitutional responsibility to enact national security legislation and implement Article 23 of the Basic Law while emphasising the need to create a favourable social environment to handle the issue. All eyes will be on her wording of the controversial issue during her speech.
She is also expected to pledge to set aside the bulk of reclaimed land for public housing, while also offering the option of using private farmland held by developers in the New Territories in a public-private partnership to build homes.
While the government has taken a few steps forward on the housing front, lawmakers expressed disappointment with what they saw as Lam’s slow progress on key issues in the innovation and social welfare sector.
On social welfare, lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who represents the sector, said Lam had made “some improvements” in certain areas, such as introducing affordable access to some drugs for rare diseases. But he said she failed to deliver any plans on how she expected to achieve “zero waiting time” as promised, for community care services such as nursing home places.
“I’ve pressed her on this in Legco, but she wasn’t able to give any directions or plans. Then that would just make it a slogan, not an actual policy,” Cheung said.
“The government said it would provide an extra 260 spaces for nursing homes this year, but when you have more than 40,000 people waiting in line and 6,000 dying each year while waiting, the gap is just too big,” he said. “It’s hard to give her a passing grade.”
Lam’s performance on innovation and technology, another major highlight in last year’s policy address, was also not stellar, according to lawmaker Charles Mok.
“Out of eight initiatives, she made a head start and did some work on four, but for the other half the progress has just been far too slow,” Mok said.
He said no progress was made in areas such as further opening up government data and reviewing outdated laws that impeded development of a sharing economy, referring to the tough climate for global businesses such as Uber and Airbnb to survive in the city.
“The [government think tank] Policy Innovation and Coordination Office is still conducting internal studies on this. We don’t even know if they’ve handed in any reports, let alone if the matter is being discussed in Legco,” he said.
On empowering youth, Lam set up the Youth Development Commission, a high-level advisory board to tackle major challenges faced by younger people. More than half of the board’s members are aged 35 or below. But only two meetings were held since it was formed in April.
Lau Ming-wai, vice-chairman of the commission, said things got off to a “smooth start”, but stakeholders pointed out “much more could be done, particularly on cross-bureau coordination” to tackle youth issues.
“So far in its very short history, nothing to this effect has been announced. I understand stakeholders are expecting to see such initiatives in the coming future,” Lau admitted.
Additional reporting by Gary Cheung