Level Best

One of the favourite expressions of former chief secretary David Akers-Jones was “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good”. What he was trying to tell us junior administrators was that we should not let the search for perfection, which might take a long time, deter us from implementing something which could be done quickly if it would be of real benefit to people.

The French philosopher Montesquieu is credited with first articulating the sentiment in modern times in his 1726 writings “The best is the mortal enemy of the good”. Some put the origin even further back to Aristotle in ancient Greece.

Be all that as it may, it was undoubtedly in this spirit that in his Policy Address last October, chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu announced plans to improve the situation in subdivided housing units. It was estimated 220,000 people were living in 110,000 such premises, many of which offered undesirable living conditions. He would establish a task force which by August this year should produce recommendations on minimum standards in terms of living space, building and fire safety, hygiene requirements, and other aspects of dealing with the problem.

The task force, led by Deputy financial secretary Michael Wong Wai-lun, held its first meeting in November. It has since invited views from interested parties, and In May the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors held a press conference to outline its suggestions. HKIS recommended a minimum unit size of 100 square feet, including the kitchen and bathroom which should be separate. There were also proposals on minimum door and corridor width and ceiling height, and annual inspections for fire safety. The Institute estimated around 30 per cent of existing units – some 30,000 – were smaller than its recommendations.

For those not previously familiar with the situation, these numbers will have come as a sobering wakeup call. There cannot be many subscribers to this newspaper with a kitchen and bathroom of less than 100 square feet in total. The idea that such an area should include both of these facilities and living space is almost beyond comprehension. For one person, let alone two or more (the average is two after all) then we have a picture of serious social deprivation. Small wonder that Lee gave such a high priority to securing improvement. The situation did not start on his watch, of course, it obviously developed over many years, but at last we have a commitment to do something about it.

The task force will have its work cut out coming up with practical short-term measures. The HKIS recommendations are a good starting point from a professional perspective, but it is easy to foresee problems. For example, some premises will simply not lend themselves to physical adaptation to comply with the space, height and width requirements. Making the corridor wider may involve reducing the size of the living space. The plumbing may not support separate kitchen and bathroom facilities for each unit. What if the fire inspection finds the layout to be dangerous. Ruling any unit non-compliant for whatever reason would be bound to render some residents homeless. Should compromises be made between the different causes of non-compliance, for example giving priority to fire safety over minor shortfalls in space. That seems easy enough but what if remedying the fire safety aspect has hygiene implications. How could re-occupation be prevented if the first residents are re-housed. Is there a role for Penny’s Bay and the other Covid related standby facilities.

The question is choosing what to do and what priority to give the different options. In the long term only a substantial increase in the housing stock is going to make a serious dent in the size of the problem. Fortunately, on this front the forecasts are more encouraging. Two months ago think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation said 35,000 public housing units per year would be completed in each of the next five years and the waiting time for public housing would as a result drop from 5.8 years to 4.6. The organisation also recommended the opportunity be taken to gradually increase the size of units. During a subsequent radio show to discuss the report it was suggested we should be thinking in terms of 250 square feet per person, as compared with the existing average of 170. On the basis of a two-and-a-half-person household Hong Kong should build a lot more homes in the range of 600 – 700 square feet. By happy chance this is the same size as the land footprint of small houses in the New Territories.

The government is also planning construction of a large number of decent-sized housing units over the following five years, so within 10 years all should be well. But long-term plans sometimes go wrong or slip – remember the “85,000 per year” aspiration in the early days of the SAR?

That is why the government introduced the idea of Light Public Housing Units to provide some hope, and relief, for those waiting for a long time for public housing. This interim measure, which can be implemented more quickly than permanent public housing, involves construction of 30,000 such units by 2027-28. The first batch of 2,100 will be ready by January next year and applications opened last week.

Looking at the overall situation, we are planning for the best. But that has not stopped us from planning for a good interim solution. Lee is now taking that a stage further and trying to find a good interim solution to the interim solution.

David would be very pleased.