News that the wait for public housing had reached an all-time high of 6.1 years (against a target of three) adds new urgency to the pledge by incoming chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu to give priority to solving the problem. The latest government estimate is that Hong Kong should aim to provide 430,000 housing units over the next 10 years.
There are some who say the estimate is excessive because of emigration, or because fertility levels have fallen and families are getting smaller. But immigration from the mainland and elsewhere can always pick up. Let us just accept for discussion purposes that the number is very big.
As he sits down to start addressing the issue, Lee needs to be very careful. There is a danger the outgoing administration will be feeding him lots of micro projects to get off to a quick start: an unused school site here, a small parcel of open space there, a slice from a golf course to demonstrate “resolve” and ability to stand up to “vested interests”. But if he really wants to make an impact, Lee needs to think big, and strategically. And remain true to his “results oriented” philosophy. The question is not how many houses he can produce by Christmas, or in his first one hundred days or any other short-term horizon, but how big a dent he will have made in the overall problem by the end of his five-year term.
Lee needs to set an ambitious target for housing units over his full five-year term. It is important that the target be specific and unambiguous and incapable of manipulation. Let me explain why.
Every year following the policy address the government issues a report on progress of its pledges from the previous year. Public servants have no wish to make a rod for their own backs, so the language of the promise contains as much wiggle room as possible. The government promises to strive to achieve a certain thing. As long as it strived, it delivered. It promises to introduce or pursue a particular proposal. As long as that proposal was pursued, then irrespective of the outcome the promise was kept. In this way the report on progress can almost always be positive, the language triumphant in tone.
If this all sounds a trifle theoretical, let me quote an actual example. Does anyone remember the idea of luxury taxis? The plan was they would be clean, well maintained, with polite well-behaved drivers, all for a higher fare. The promise was to consult on such a scheme. Well this hare-brained idea was duly floated and duly shot down by the Legislative Council. So was this a failure? Not at all! The pledge was to consult on the idea and it got considered. Success! And now at least we have the higher fares. See what I mean?
Lee should pledge to construct a total of 200,000 housing units in a new town in the northern New Territories by 2027.
No bluster, no weasel words, instead a specific number in a specified place by a certain date. I deliberately chose Northern Metropolis rather than East Lantau because of timing issues. The latter project is not as bad an idea as its many critics queued up to claim. But the reclamation process alone will take a big bite out of Lee’s five-year term. Whereas the land in the New Territories already exists. What we need is the willpower to use it for public good.
Apart from numbers there are also the questions of breakdown and size. Let us provisionally say 70 per cent public sector, the balance private. The public sector share should be split equally between rental and Home Ownership Scheme. All these flats to be between 500 and 700 square feet. Let the developers cope with the smaller and larger ends of the market, but absolutely nothing below 280 square feet for singletons.
There will be critics who claim the target is too ambitious or merely a PR stunt. The prime job of the new minister will be to make them eat their words. One of Lee’s ambitions is to change the mindset of the civil service. What could be better for the purpose than forging a dynamic team dedicated to achieving a difficult but worthy objective. An example to inspire everyone.
Initially progress will be slow. Much of the first year will be taken up with complex gazettal procedures for resumption of private land and approval of railway and highway alignments. Much of the second year with letting contracts for land formation and making provision for utilities (Will we need new reservoirs? Should we be buying electricity from mainland suppliers, or at least opening up the market?) But these two years will not be wasted as the time can be spent planning detailed layouts and arranging offsite prefabrication production facilities. Much of the construction on site will only start in year three. But as units are transported into the Metropolis and assembled in place, public excitement will surely grow. We will have created a public project the whole community can get behind.
Our incoming chief executive is no doubt interviewing candidates for the post of Secretary for Housing. He should put this target to each of them in turn. Anyone who says it is not possible, or offers only to try his best, should be thanked for coming and politely shown the door. The guy who takes a deep breath and promises to go for it should be hired on the spot.