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HK chief vows to battle housing crisis

Publication Date : 17-01-2013

 

There will be more flats and cleaner air for the people of Hong Kong. But no road map to democracy - yet.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying laid out concrete steps yesterday to tackle the city's long- festering problems of soaring property prices and smog, a move welcomed by "caged home" denizens and residents forced to wear face masks when they go out.

But Leung left democracy advocates disappointed.

There was little in his maiden policy address, which will serve as the government's blueprint for the next five years, on how Hong Kong would make its way towards universal suffrage by the next election in 2017. He promised a "comprehensive consultation" and said that constitutional procedures would be initiated at "an appropriate juncture".

The Hong Kong leader made clear what his top priority was - to declare war on the city's housing crisis. Hong Kong, he said, must "turn a new chapter" in its success story of turning hilly terrain into a modern metropolis.

"In recent years, our urban development has taken a disturbing turn... All too often, there are wrangles over land use and infrastructure projects, leading to sluggish land development and housing shortage."

Caged homes, subdivided flats and cubicle apartments - the home of no choice for some 100,000 - cast "a dark shadow over our thriving city".

Besieged by mass protests and a hostile legislature since he took office last July, Leung was also seeking to turn a new page in his own tale of political travails.

In his two-hour speech, he outlined plans to build at least 142,000 units - comprising 75,000 rental flats and 67,000 private homes - in the next five years. On top of this, 17,000 subsidised flats will be built for sale and will be ready after 2017.

The figure is up from the 125,000 units built in the previous five years under his predecessor Donald Tsang.

Leung yesterday articulated a principle ditched by Tsang: "I believe that home ownership by the middle class is crucial to social stability."

Currently, 52 per cent of Hong Kongers above age 18 own a home, said Buggle Lau, chief analyst of property agency Midland Holdings.

Beyond the short term, Leung also outlined measures to ensure a steady supply of land. A land bank of 300ha providing 128,700 units by 2020 will be set up. In the long term, reclamation of Victoria Harbour and even the use of rock caverns and underground spaces would be considered.

Analysts said the measures are unlikely to result in an immediate drop in prices; rather, the significance is in reassuring the people that there will be a steady stream of flats in the long run.

Leung also announced HK$10 billion (US$1.29 billion) of subsidies to phase out heavy-polluting buses and trucks, blamed for the city's pollution. The unhealthy air causes more than 3,000 premature deaths a year, according to think-tank Civic Exchange. The 88,000 commercial diesel vehicles that do not conform to standards should be off the roads by early 2019.

Receiving less public attention are the government's interventionist moves in the economy, which some have criticised as being overly dominated by the property and financial sectors.

Leung, who previously said he wanted to set up a version of Singapore's Temasek Holdings, appeared to have watered down his plans. Instead, an Economic Development Commission would look at how Hong Kong can "broaden our economic base". He also said the city would strive to enhance its status as a global hub for aviation and maritime transport.

And like in Singapore and South Korea, the city would be aiding its cultural and creative industries, which have "run into an array of difficulties in recent years". A First Feature Film Initiative to identify new talents through a screenplay and production competition will be launched. The winning film will get full funding for it to be made.

 

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