Housing issues should top priority list of upcoming Policy Address

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu will announce his first Policy Address next month to showcase his version of a new chapter of Hong Kong.

The significance of the upcoming Policy Address lies in the fact that Lee is the first chief executive elected after the revamp of the electoral system, which incorporates the precept of “patriots administering Hong Kong” in the constitution of the expanded Election Committee to achieve a more diversified electorate with balanced representation for the election of the CE. So the upcoming Policy Address is likely to become a focal point of attention at home and globally, which is likely seen as a yardstick of governance of the new administration. People will examine how the Policy Address will lead the city to achieve effective governance as Lee has promised.

The Lee administration has so far met the public’s expectations since it took office on July 1 as reflected in its prompt action to strengthen the executive-legislative relationship and implement precise and efficient anti-pandemic measures for returning residents and incoming visitors to improve Hong Kong’s communications with the outside world.

With a good start, Lee is now in a better position to propose groundbreaking solutions in his Policy Address to some lingering livelihood issues that have been plaguing Hong Kong for years.

Among the pressing livelihood issues, the public housing shortage is no doubt one of the top priorities. The shortage has worsened rapidly, making the average waiting time for a public housing unit prolonged from three years to 5.8 years in seven years’ time.

Nevertheless, despite a communitywide consensus to tackle the problem urgently, its complexity, which involves vested interests of many parties, has made the matter an extremely hot potato for every term of the special administrative region government.

With no exception, John Lee, however high his popularity, should have also felt the many high hurdles he is facing ahead in resolving the problem.

The recurrent controversy over the development of public housing on part of the Fanling golf course has once again drawn much public attention recently after the Advisory Council on the Environment (ACE) earlier suspended the approval of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for plans to build public housing on the course. Instead, the ACE has asked the government to conduct more ecological assessments, including the impact the plans might have on birds and moths, further delaying the project.

Almost at the same time, the Hong Kong Golf Club, which operates the Fanling golf course, has also emailed its more than 2,600 members, asking them to send their opinions on the above zoning plan affecting the golf course to the Town Planning Board. The email also suggests they give alternatives to the board, “which might include maintaining the status quo or perhaps using other land options such as brownfield sites or the Northern Metropolis”.

The Golf Club’s new opinion-soliciting action has raised many people’s eyebrows, accusing the concerned powerful parties with vested interests of using environmental-impact assessments as a pretext to purposely delay and ultimately abort the plan of building public housing on the golf course.

Originally, the government accepted a proposal to develop 32 hectares of land from the 172-hectare Fanling site in 2019 after a citywide debate. Out of the 32 hectares of land, only about 9 hectares will be used to build some 12,000 flats for 33,600 residents. The remaining portion will be used for ecological conservation and recreation. The proposal is considered to be one of the short-to-medium-term relief measures to the city’s severe housing shortage.

While the debate on building public housing on part of the Fanling golf course continues, the CE should remember one of his electoral promises — carrying out policies with a results-oriented approach. That requires a strong-willed executive-led administration to implement bold policies that can benefit a large majority of people without being hijacked or tied up by some “public opinion” created by a minority group of people with vested interests.

With a good start, Lee is now in a better position to propose groundbreaking solutions in his Policy Address to some lingering livelihood issues that have been plaguing Hong Kong for years

Hong Kong paid a high price when the accumulation of social grievances came to the point of being exploited by anti-China forces to incite unrest in 2019. The acute housing shortage, skyrocketing home prices, and stagnant upward social mobility for young people are some of the social problems that previous administrations failed to resolve because of various factors, including “deliberation without decision”.

So we need short-, medium- and long-term measures to resolve the public housing problem that requires all sectors of the community to take up their respective social responsibility and sacrifice a little bit for the sake of the overall benefit of the city that we call home.

If we cannot find an alternative site other than the 9 hectares of land in the golf course, should the plan be dragged on continually by rounds and rounds of EIAs, just like the fate of some previous infrastructure projects; namely, the Central and Wan Chai reclamation, the Hong Kong West Kowloon Station, and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge? These projects all ended up with much-delayed completion dates and with overspending because of excessive and prolonged EIAs as well as other politically motivated hindrances.

EIAs are important, and the lives of birds and moths are important, too. However, Hong Kong people’s livelihoods are indispensable. We want to give priority to improving the life of hundreds of families living in subdivided flats or “cage homes” by offering them public housing units as quickly as possible. They have been suffering for years and deserve decent homes to lead dignified lives.

The central government has repeatedly aired its concern about Hong Kong residents’ livelihoods, demanding the SAR government take solid steps to address difficulties in people’s lives.

President Xi Jinping set out “four proposals” for the SAR government in his July 1 speech, one of which is for the SAR government to earnestly address people’s concerns and difficulties in livelihoods. “Currently, the biggest aspiration of Hong Kong people is to lead a better life, in which they will have more decent housing, more opportunities for starting their own businesses, better education for their children, and better care in their twilight years,” he said.

On another occasion, in July 2021, Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, raised “four expectations” for Hong Kong, the first of which is an effective solution to the housing shortage. He said that by the time China achieves its second centennial goal in 2049, Hong Kong’s economy is expected to be more prosperous and its housing problem significantly improved so that people can say goodbye to subdivided flats and cage homes.

We are eagerly looking forward to seeing a farsighted Policy Address that can tackle the city’s deep-seated problems, particularly the public housing shortage.

The author is a member of the Hong Kong Association of Media Veterans and a freelance writer.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.