March 23, 2022
HONG KONG – When society bade farewell to the Year of the Ox to embrace the Year of the Tiger, it was mentioned in the previous article, titled “Cutting red tape for a housing supply leap in the Year of Tiger”, that the government was expected to start afresh in the new year, turning words into actions regarding housing supply to shorten public housing waiting time. The aforementioned article offered an in-depth explanation of how to expedite supply through reorganizing and streamlining the workflow of land and housing development. In this article, we focus on analyzing how to boost efficiency through improving high-level steering, formulating quantifiable indicators, and introducing a performance-based incentive mechanism to civil servants. It would be like empowering a tiger with wings in policy implementation. With concerted efforts coupled with multifarious measures in land development, the housing supply can be enhanced in quantity as well.
Improving supervision and strengthening morale to boost housing supply efficiency
Currently, development work at various stages in New Development Areas (NDAs) is divided among different departments such as the Planning Department, Lands Department, and Civil Engineering and Development Department. Without a dedicated unit for coordination, buck-passing with a lack of cooperation is inevitable. The Kwu Tung North/Fanling North and the Hung Shui Kiu projects are notorious examples, which take an average of 17 years from the official announcements to the moving in of the first batch of residents. This is much slower compared with the New Towns in earlier years such as Tin Shui Wai and Tseung Kwan O, which took less than half of the time.
In fact, the Policy Address 2021 puts forward the idea of establishing the positions of deputy secretaries to preside over regional developments, including the Northern Metropolis and Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Coherently, the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy also proposes “the setting up of a high-level dedicated government institution to lead relevant bureau and departments to devise and implement the policies, measures and resource allocation plans required for the development of the Northern Metropolis”.
We suggest that the government can learn from the Territory Development Department to establish a dedicated department for regional development with a designated project office for each NDA. Quantifiable progress targets should be set to enjoin execution units to strictly follow the stipulated timetable in discharging their duties, so that the supply of spade-ready land in the NDAs can be expedited.
Moreover, all relevant departments should set their own quantifiable performance indicators. For instance, the Planning Department can set annual targets in rezoning for residential uses; the Lands Department can set yearly targets in land disposal for residential development; the Civil Engineering and Development Department can set similar targets in completing site formations for residential development; and the Buildings Department and the Housing Department can set annual targets in approving newly constructed private residential units and public housing units respectively.
Unquestionably, a highly efficient crew of civil servants is fundamental to policy execution, however ideal the governing structure is. The approach of “carrot and stick” can be applied, following the examples of Singapore and South Korea to implement a performance-based assessment system for civil servants. The government can consider mechanisms such as granting performance bonuses to motivate civil servants.
Forging consensus and exploring different ways to boost housing supply
Meanwhile, society is divided by the various rigid individual beliefs on the ideal development model despite the severity of the housing shortage. The government ought to impress on its people the necessity of reaching a consensus, and increasing the land and housing supply through multipronged measures.
Abandoning the “Central Perspective” to recognize and confirm the development potential of the New Territories is a crucial step. Currently, the maximum plot ratios permitted in the urban areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon can reach 10, while those in the New Territories are limited to six in general. In many cases the ratios are even lower than one. Therefore, the New Territories is still sparsely populated despite its vastness, in stark contrast with the concrete jungle in the Shenzhen Central Business District, just across the river. With the Northern Link significantly boosting the transport connectivity in the northern region of Hong Kong in the future, economic collaboration and the flow of people across the border will be enhanced. The government should proactively increase the development intensity in the New Territories to foster large-scale urbanization of the New Territories.
Besides, the existing town planning mechanism is failing to strike a balance between guiding and controlling development. Sixty-seven percent of land in Hong Kong is designated green land, such as country parks and green belts, way more than London (38 percent) and Singapore (8 percent). The government should scientifically evaluate the land’s ecological value and review the reasonable distribution of green land with no delay. The government should also review the planning intention for the wetland buffer area (approximately 1,000 hectares) to achieve a balance between conservation and development.
In the long run, the government must ensure a steady land supply, satisfying socioeconomic needs to safeguard its citizens’ livelihood. To this end, land reserves should be built up relentlessly. We suggest that the government can study the planning strategy of the “White Zone” in Singapore, standardizing government land without long-term usage as land reserves after site formation, covering but not limited to newly reclaimed land and land in the NDAs. By doing so, unforeseeable development needs in the future can be fulfilled through allowing land use with greater flexibility for residential, commercial or mixed purposes if need be, or even brand-new modes of industrial and commercial development.
Lastly, it is anticipated that the amount of construction works will rise greatly. Enhancing the overall construction capacity is thus particularly important. The government must do its utmost to increase manpower for the construction sector. Appropriately lowering the thresholds for the importation of foreign professional labor is worth considering. The application of new technology such as Modular Integrated Construction should also be popularized. Furthermore, the government should properly adjust its monitoring scope and encourage professional self-examination where appropriate. More studies into the tendering model can be conducted to encourage constructive competition in the market, supporting the healthy development of the construction sector through various means.
It is no easy task to tackle the chronic housing shortage overnight, but neither is it an impossible mission. If the government can see through the previous flaws in policymaking and make amends decisively, the average waiting time for public housing can possibly be slashed from the current six years to 3.7 years. Citizens can then lead a carefree life unencumbered by accommodation issues. Hong Kong will also make a fresh start with a tiger-like leap in overcoming hurdles.
Ryan Ip Man-ki is head of land and housing research at Our Hong Kong Foundation. Calvin Au Hou-che is an assistant researcher at the foundation.