Small House Truth Still Inconvenient

There is something about the subject of small houses that drives otherwise sane people over the edge into a form of madness.

The Heung Yee Kuk claims that there is a legal entitlement for certain New Territories villagers (those descended through the male line from a resident of a pre-1898 recognised village) to build a small house, and that this right is protected by the Basic Law.

In fact while there is some evidence of a traditional practice there is no legal entitlement as such, and the Basic Law makes no mention of small houses, contenting itself with a bland promise to respect "lawful traditional rights".

The Kuk regularly complains about slow processing of applications by the Lands Department. Yet if the present output of 1,000 odd cases a year were doubled (which is extremely unlikely) it would take 100 years – not a misprint – to deal with all those villagers already "eligible" (240,000 as estimated by the Kuk), and 200 years if the benefit were extended to women, which under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance it should have been.

Dealing with these cases, plus the hundreds of thousands of others that would arise in the interim, would require all the land in the New Territories and large areas of Guangdong Province.

In other words the policy as interpreted by some is simply incapable of implementation.

That alone is sufficient reason to take a step back and look at the origins of the policy, what it was trying to achieve, and how in practical ways we should now be seeking to achieve those objectives.

The small house policy was devised in 1972 when there was little or no public housing in the New Territories.

The idea was that residents of rural areas who wished to continue to live in their village, perhaps because they had a penchant for country living or farmed nearby land, should be allowed to improve their housing situation by building a small house within the village environs on land they already owned, or on government land which would be sold to them for the purpose.

In other words this is a matter of housing policy.

The situation has radically changed since the policy was introduced. There is hardly any farming any more, and the existing stock of small houses (some 28,000) is more than sufficient to cope with genuine demand. Most new small house approvals are simply sold on by the recipients to developers who amalgamate them and build high class Spanish villa type estates for letting or selling to wealthy city folk. Moreover the Housing Authority has meanwhile built many thousands of public housing units in the New Territories.

In other words everyone concerned can now be decently and adequately housed.

From time to time people express a wish to "draw a line" under the policy.

But killing it off in a showdown would undoubtedly provoke a confrontation with those still hoping for the windfall the existing system gives them, however lacking in justification.

Maybe it would be better to tackle the problem indirectly by setting some reasonable terms and conditions.

Most people would agree that in modern day Hong Kong it is hard to justify creating new villages of the traditional kind or expanding the boundaries of existing ones.

Many existing villages suffer from various problems of inadequate access and lack of basic infrastructure. The houses are sometimes too close together, blocking light and ventilation.

Starting from the position that this is essentially a housing policy matter, what should we do?

The answer must be to freeze the size of all villages within their existing boundaries and then prepare proper layout plans for them with statutory force. The plans should make adequate arrangements for emergency vehicular access, sewage, mains water and so on with adequate space between properties for ventilation, light and circulation.

The immediate consequence of introducing such a package would be a delay of several years while statutory layout plans were prepared and the necessary infrastructure provided. When in theory small house grants could resume the likelihood would be that only a trickle of approvals was possible because there simply wouldn’t be room for much additional housing.

The Kuk might well claim that such measures constituted de facto death of the policy, albeit by slow suffocation rather than confrontation, and press for compensation.

Indeed recent media reports quoted Development Secretary Carrie Lam as saying it would be difficult to justify to urban residents why compensation should be paid to New Territories villagers for the loss of what the former perceive to be an unjustified bonanza.

Methinks this is a masterly understatement. For "difficult" read "impossible".