Cutting red tape necessary to boost housing supply in the Year of the Tiger
This article appeared originally in the CHINADAILY on 23 February, 2022.
Authors: Ryan Ip, head of land and housing research and Jacqueline Hui, researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation
While society bids farewell to the Year of the Ox to embrace the Year of the Tiger, Hong Kong’s land and housing development remains a great concern. It is hoped that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government can take a gigantic tiger-like leap of faith to overcome hurdles and make amends, turning words into actions regarding housing supply.
To make up for the housing shortfall and reduce the waiting time for public housing in the short run, the government must enhance three elements in all aspects concerning land and housing development — “speed up”, “efficiency up”, and “mass up”. It is like a marathon in which athletes must undergo holistic training in various areas such as speed, sinew and endurance instead of merely focusing on one particular bodily function to maintain progress in the long journey.
Multiple steps in sync to expedite large-scale developments
A development project starts from planning and public consultation, followed by procedures such as land resumption and clearance, detailed design, land formation and building construction. This essay will explore how to streamline the process of large-scale developments, public housing projects and private housing construction to expedite housing supply.
Large–scale development projects, including land reclamation and New Development Areas (NDAs), generally take 14 years or more from the preliminary planning stage to the first batch of spade-ready sites being available, excluding the time taken for construction. In the preliminary planning stage, apart from the commonly seen three phases of public consultation, ordinances such as the Roads (Works, Use and Compensation) Ordinance, the Lands Resumption Ordinance, the Town Planning Ordinance and the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance also require repeated consultations regarding the same development project. To tackle this, the stakeholder consultation procedures under different ordinances should be consolidated to avoid repeating similar procedures. Moving onto the lands resumption stage, the government should promote public-private partnerships to speed up land assembly through the market mechanism. Arrangements should also be made according to the needs of occupants such as brownfield operators, farm owners and squatters to mitigate conflicts during lands resumption.
NDAs are usually categorized into several development phases. Although the preparatory procedures of the later phases, such as detailed design, lands resumption and land formation, are not affected by the preliminary work, they can start only when the preliminary phase is completed. To address this, preparatory work of various phases should commence simultaneously. During the first phase of construction work, land exchange for private land of the remaining phases should also be activated so that the private land with suitable conditions can be developed earlier.
As for land reclamation projects, the government’s internal administrative procedures require detailed Outline Zoning Plans (OZPs) to be formulated for topside developments before reclamation works begin. If the current practice can be revised by synchronizing the town planning procedures for topside developments and reclamation works, one to two years’ time can be saved on the whole reclamation project.
Streamlining town planning and land administration to expedite private development
Apart from large-scale development projects, other private residential projects mainly stem from rezoning farmland, Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs) and urban redevelopment, all of which take more than 10 years to develop.
In the planning stage, town planning procedures can be streamlined. For instance, the current statutory time of 17 months for plan-making can be halved. An alternative would be allowing the commencement of ensuing procedures once the individual planning applications are approved, instead of waiting for the amended OZPs.
For the land administration stage, land leases often become complicated because of the requirements of other departments, adding to the difficulty of the actual development. If certain specific requirements are already regulated by relevant ordinances or if a specific department is responsible for law enforcement, there should be no need to include the requirements in the land leases. Moreover, revision of land leases generally takes around five years. The government can consider extending the program of charging land premiums at “standard rates” to the agricultural land in the New Territories to enhance the efficiency of land lease revision.
In addition, developing CDAs are often infeasible because of the large number of land titles involved. In this regard, the government can split the CDAs and demarcate them according to the size and distribution of titles, as well as quantifying its assessment standards. Furthermore, concerning the redevelopment of old buildings, the key lies in how to speed up reconstruction for both private buildings and projects under the Urban Renewal Authority. Methods worth considering include lowering the compulsory sale thresholds, the transfer of plot ratio, and increasing the flexibility of acquisition compensation.
Enhancing project transparency to ensure public housing supply
Public housing development other than large-scale development projects mainly comes from rezoning or redevelopment of old housing estates. It usually takes more than 10 years from planning to completion.
Under the existing practice, the government consults public opinion during the preliminary planning process and then consults relevant District Councils (DCs) again in the ensuing stage of detailed design. However, given the diversity of requests raised by DC members, it is hard to satisfy all their needs even after multiple amendments in the project design. This is exemplified by the public housing project of Chung Nga Road West in Tai Po, which was presented to the DC in 2014. DC members’ incessant dissatisfaction toward the planning of the project contributes to the lack of conclusion to this day even after three rounds of revision. In fact, experts within the government from various fields such as architecture, construction and town planning should give professional judgments proactively, adopt appropriate comments, and balance different needs to push the project forward to the next stage.
During the process of design and construction, the government can consider taking the previous Private Sector Participation Scheme as reference, working in conjunction with contractors in the design and construction of public housing to enhance efficiency. Moreover, current public housing projects are not transparent enough regarding information disclosure. The public is clueless about the project progress. If the government can create a one-stop public housing information platform to disseminate details of different phases, including land development, submission of construction plans and construction-work progress of each project, relevant departments will be more committed to ensuring a timely and steady housing supply.
The complexity of current housing development procedures undoubtedly hinders land development. Despite the surge in financial resources and manpower invested in land and housing development over the past one to two decades, the efficiency of housing supply has yet to be enhanced. Society is constantly divided by various ideal modes of development without consensus, making it harder to resolve the housing issue. The next essay will delve deeply into the solutions to these problems.