Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Big Bold Bureaucrat Brainwave when she took office last year was to set up a Task Force on Land Supply. Its mission was to conduct…
…a macro review … building on the multi-pronged land supply strategy [and to] review and evaluate other land supply options, and launch a public engagement exercise … on the pros and cons of different options and their priorities … to build consensus in the community and draw up a broad framework of recommendations … with prioritisation of different land supply options for further consideration by the Government.
Or in plain English: bullshit, blather, blah-blah – just put it all off into the distant future by which time we’ll have retired and collected our pensions (and the ‘further consideration’ might have begun).
The grand Public Engagement will now commence.
There are two types of deliberative/public-consultation exercise on ‘difficult’ problems (eg healthcare finance reform, broadening the fiscal base, electoral reform) in Hong Kong.
Type A typically presents at least four options, all but one of which is putrid, unworkable or unthinkable – plus the one the bureaucrats have already decided on. Since the bureaucrats’ pre-determined option is widely hated, the ultimate result is that nothing happens.
Type B presents multiple options, of which some overlap, some are contradictory, some are impractical, some are barely relevant, some are attention-grabbing but absurd, plus one or two that might make sense. Inevitably with such confusion, ‘the community cannot reach a consensus’, and again the result is that nothing happens. (Can we have our pensions now please?)
In both cases, the exercise either addresses the wrong problem or omits obvious solutions. This way, even if by some miracle something does happen, it doesn’t change anything serious.
This Land Task Force is Type B. We are invited to ask how to solve a shortfall of land for housing, looking ahead 10-plus years. Options include reclaiming a golf course (daringly populist but small-scale), reclaiming country parks (non-populist, large-scale), reclamation from the sea (costing billions and taking decades) and a wacky science-fiction thing where they build towns above container terminals.
An obvious option is to develop relatively plentiful underutilized semi-rural land whose owners drool at the prospect. But this is horribly complex, difficult and controversial owing to official policy to make it horribly complex, difficult and controversial (through zoning, premiums, and any other obstacles we can find).
The theory is that allowing landowners to profit means ‘collusion’ or ‘transfer of benefits’. One solution, if we can’t trust our own: hire Singaporean civil servants to run it. The reality is that unleashing market forces would mess up the whole thing – the idea is to keep private housing prices artificially high.
But in finest Hong Kong tradition, the Task Force misses the real problem, which is housing, and demand and affordability, here and now.
There is no word on Mainland immigration, through which Beijing transplants 50,000 mostly unskilled newcomers a year. No mention of serious restrictions on overseas buyers or taxing empty homes. No talk of reforming land premiums or public housing systems. No word on evicting Disney. No discussion of whether government should stop pushing the middle class into overpriced home-ownership – or whether the economy and society might benefit from less debt-servitude to the property developers. Amazingly.
The purpose of the Task Force is to achieve nothing, and it will succeed magnificently.