Hong Kong's Own Inconvenient Truth

The Heung Yee Kuk estimated a few years ago that there were 240,000 male indigenous villagers in the New Territories eligible for a small house grant under the then prevailing policy. It asked the government Lands Department to speed up the processing of applications, of which there was a backlog in excess of 14,000. The annual rate of processing applications at that time was a little over 1,000 and the target was subsequently increased to over 2,000. Let's say it could reach 2,400 a year because that simplifies the maths.

What it means is that if everyone theoretically entitled to a grant came forward and assuming bureaucratic productivity was doubled it would take 100 years for the Lands Department to process the applications.

But that is by no means the end of the absurdity. Because the numbers quoted deal only with male indigenous villagers. If females are also included, which under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance they should have been, then the number would roughly double. 200 years then but the nonsense doesn't end there because during that period (however long it proved to be) hundreds of thousands - even millions - more indigenous villagers would be born and could also step forward to lodge their claim.

The Government persuaded the Legislative Council to exempt the Small House Policy from the Sex Discrimination Ordinance with a shabby backroom deal in the mid-1990s whereby it promised a comprehensive review of the problem. The review has been in progress in one form or another since 1995 but of course it has not been concluded - it never can be concluded - because there is only one possible solution and that solution is not acceptable to the rural mafia which has an armlock on government policy in this area.

Let us take a step back for a moment: the Small House Policy was introduced in 1972 to improve the living environment in rural areas by allowing villagers - people who live in remote villages and want to stay in them because, for example, they farm the land nearby -- to build a decent house for themselves on their own land or on Government land within the village environs. At the time there was little public housing in the New Territories and large scale development there had only just begun.

Well intended though it undoubtedly was, the policy quickly degenerated into a tidal wave of abuse which enriched well connected clan leaders , enabled genuine villagers to improve their lot and well heeled city folk to get themselves a nice weekend hideaway. No great harm so far but of course the incentive was there for illegal occupation of public land, unauthorised reclamation and site formation, indiscriminate chopping down of trees and other environmental degradation all in areas effectively exempt from planning control. All of which has brought us to the situation we now face: infinite demand, finite resources, chaos on the ground.

We badly need to bring some common sense to bear. There are now over 28,000 small houses in the New Territories --more than enough to accommodate the people who really need to live there for occupational purposes. Anyone still inadequately housed can apply for one of the many fine public housing estates that have been built since the policy was established. We don't need large numbers of new small houses.

If the result is obvious, how can we get there from here? By applying some common sense rules. There should be no new villages created, and no expansion of existing ones; all existing villages should be covered by proper layout plans with statutory force; the plans should make adequate provision for emergency access, sewage, mains water and other essential infrastructure; as far as possible the plans should follow the existing situation on the ground and tolerate as far as possible any inadequacies, but in so far as the present situation is unacceptable then any new building or redevelopment must be in accordance with the plan and remedy or ameliorate the defects. New grants can only be made once the infrastructure is in place.

Those who have made their fortune through loopholes in the present scheme, or still hope to do so, can be expected to howl with rage at the loss of their "nice little earner". No doubt some will point to the Basic Law and say their "rights" are protected. The Basic Law protects only their lawful rights. That phrasing cannot be read to include rights that are in breach of the Bill of Rights or indeed other clauses in the Basic Law itself.

The plain fact is the Small House Policy is dead and the corpse is beginning to smell. It is long past time someone had the decency to bury it.

Does anyone know a helpful Executive Councillor?