Changing people’s mindset may foster a housing miracle in HK
Geoffrey Somers writes that Hong Kong’s large country parks might provide a possible solution to young people’s problem in owning a home in the city
When the new Chief Executive takes over the administration next year, one of the biggest problems confronting him/ her will be to find a way of solving Hong Kong’s critical housing shortage. Or, more specifically, to find the land where new public and private estates can be built.
You may take it for granted that the most affected section of the community — young couples who have been squeezed out of the market — will be among the first to start making demands to the new leader.
Today’s generation of teens and people in their 20s have already proved their penchant for protracted street demonstrations and bursting onto the political scene, campaigning for separatism and independence, and upsetting the applecart.
When it comes to housing they must realize that nothing short of a miracle can reverse the present impossible situation. But recent history shows that Hong Kong actually has an amazing record of performing miracles to house its homeless.
In the late 1940s and 1950s there was a huge intake of new immigrants from over the border. Shanty towns of makeshift huts suddenly appeared on hillsides overlooking bustling urban districts on either side of the harbor. But devastating fires would regularly sweep through these squatter settlements, especially in the bitter cold of winter. Consequently the resettlement program was launched leading to the building of resettlement estates where, eventually, all the immigrants were housed.
In the 1980s and 1990s our urban districts were acutely overcrowded. A second housing miracle provided the solution — the creation of new towns across the New Territories where housing units were larger and amenities included parks, play- The author is a former long-time Chief Information Officer of the Housing Authority and Housing Department and editor of several English-language publications before and after his government service.
grounds, supermarkets and ultra-modern shopping centers.
So what new housing miracle might our next Chief Executive initiate? Might he or she order a thorough re-evaluation of whether chunks of suitable land could be hived off some of our country parks and used for building residential estates?
It’s not a new idea, I realize, but our housing situation has never been as serious as at the present, and it is incomprehensible that suitable sections of so much land should continue to be excluded from filling such an urgent need.
There are 24 country parks and 22 special areas across the SAR that occupy a large percentage of our total land mass estimated at a whopping 44,300 hectares. The designated role of these reserved areas is to provide “natural conservation, countryside recreation and outdoors education”.
It is undeniable these parks are enjoyed by picnickers, weekend hikers and nature-lovers. They attract more than 11 million visitors every year, apart from locals seeking escape from the air pollution in some of our crowded urban districts, but tourists who prefer pristine natural beauty over shopping. But in our present situation with so many thousands of people, particularly young couples, desperate to be provided with a roof of their own over their heads, shouldn’t priorities be re-examined?
What is the alternative if we continue to preserve all the land designated as untouchable country parks? There isn’t any “Plan B” to fall back to solve the problem. And recent events involving fractious young people making all sorts of political demands suggest that when, inevitably, they take up the struggle for a bigger slice of the supposed housing “pie”, it could lead to unpleasant consequences.
Many young couples are presently “squeezing in” at the home of a parent. The overcrowding is often worsened by the arrival of a grandchild, stretching to breaking point the patience of both the old and young. The situation usually suffers further if the child’s mother, previously a working wife, stays at home to become a nursing mother.
On Hong Kong Island alone, there are four country parks — Pok Fu Lam, Aberdeen, Tai Tam and Shek O. You will probably be surprised to learn that Tai Tam Country Park occupies 1,315 hectares, comprising one-fifth of the land that makes up Hong Kong Island.
The longest in our country parks is the 100 km MacLehose Trail between Tuen Mun in the western New Territories and Sai Kung in the east. It is certainly a challenging walk, but barely a pinprick when compared with the depth of today’s housing problem. On the one hand it cannot be denied that our country parks are home to many of Mother Nature’s beauties, and that the vast proportion of it should be preserved for the people’s enjoyment. But on the other homes for the deserving are an overriding necessity.
Confucius says: “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.” It’s only logical deduction that with so many of our citizens without a home to call their own, our integrity as a harmonious society will be so much weaker.