Chan shows his support for infrastructure and for people

Updated: 2017-02-23 08:56

(HK Edition)

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The 2017-18 Budget has just been presented by Paul Chan Mo-po, the newly appointed financial secretary, to the Legislative Council on Wednesday. Contrary to popular belief, Chan did not adopt a "caretaker government attitude" to develop mediocre measures for Hong Kong. In the 2017-18 Budget, a range of government plans have been outlined. These demonstrate the consistency of his vision to support infrastructure, the elderly, the poor and salaried workers. The benefits to the public extend beyond "social justice" to include the elements of living dignity and learning equality.

For instance, the government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is increasing its commitment to the provision of elderly services as well as services for the disabled; HK$30 billion will be allocated for this. A total of HK$61 billion, including for the elderly and for rehabilitation (HK$30 billion), sports (HK$20 billion), innovation and technology (HK$10 billion) and youth development (HK$1 billion) will be earmarked from the surplus of HK$92.8 billion. This shows generosity and compassion toward the elderly, disabled, young people and startup entrepreneurs.

Chan also highlighted the government's continued commitment to public housing and land supply for private housing. A potential supply of 32,000 private housing units for 2017-18 and 71,800 public housing units for 2017-21 has been forecast.

As we know, the housing problem has aroused considerable public interest in recent years. Some statistics predict a population of nearly 10 million by 2050 - 40 percent more than the current 7 million. Housing prices have continued to skyrocket over the last several years. The government urgently needs to review and revise the original housing policy to find sustainable solutions. However, finding a long-term solution is easier said than done due to the fact that there has been a land shortage since the time of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration. As a result of housing undersupply, Hong Kong citizens with low- to middle incomes have no alternative but to sacrifice much of their quality of life by either renting or buying a very small apartment at a high price, or wait in a long queue for a public housing unit for many years. The housing problem, compounded by widespread poverty and sluggish economic growth, has created social instability and political unrest.

The 2017-18 Budget has the right priorities and responsibilities to resolve the housing problem by supplying more land and housing units. It is the responsibility of the government to allow all Hong Kong citizens to live with dignity.

To better achieve this objective, the government should increase capital expenditure on transport and public facilities to support the development of housing, especially in suburban and rural areas.

From my perspective, a bigger task facing the government is to gain unanimous public support for social development in designated housing sites. For instance, in the past few years there has been considerable controversy over the New Development Areas in the North East New Territories (NENT). Some protesters, possibly including some non-indigenous residents and social activists, spoke out vehemently against the NENT development scheme, which has already undergone formal urban planning procedures spanning a few years.

While the above scheme will provide about 54,000 flats for more than 150,000 people, local resistance, along with political opposition, clearly matters. Instead of investing HK$86.8 billion on capital works, the government should invest HK$200 billion for some long-term capital expenditure (such as on roads and transport, public facilities and so on) to improve the self-sustainability and regional development of proposed new housing sites.

For instance, for the above-mentioned NENT scheme, there is a missing link from northeast New Territories to northwest New Territories. This is because the East Rail and West Rail are not interconnected in the north. People likely to live in northeast New Territories will be either car owners belonging to the upper middle classes, or suburban train commuters belonging to the middle and lower classes. Social problems will arise when local residents and mainland visitors compete for insufficient local facilities.

Traffic deficiencies can be overcome by building an interconnecting railway from Tai Po Market Station, via a 4-km tunnel to the Shek Kong area (negotiating in exchange for a runway for the People's Liberation Army), connecting to the West Rail at Kam Sheung Road Station. I suggest Paul Chan make a very forward-looking approach if he is financial secretary in the next administration.

Among a package of incentives unveiled by Chan, the funds for free kindergarten education are explicitly designed to maintain "learning equality". I strongly agree with Chan about investing more in education. I would suggest the government invest an additional HK$1 billion into lifelong education, with the money coming from the surplus of this year. By providing all citizens including young people, seniors, the poor and salaried workers with more opportunities to learn different skills, we can promote a society with equal access to higher learning.

The author is former convener of policy research, City Think Tank.

(HK Edition 02/23/2017 page4)