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The name’s Lam … Carrie Lam

Hong Kong, 6 October 2021: How appropriate that just as the new James Bond movie premieres in Hong Kong, our Chief Executive Carrie Lam embarks on a vital mission. Although hardly dressed in a tuxedo, skydiving from a helicopter and saving the world, she must still tackle a super-villain of sorts: this city’s chronic (and wholly unacceptable) housing shortage.

Carrie has pledged to do just this in her much-anticipated policy address today. During an epic speech running almost the same length as No Time To Die, she has promised to create a new northern metropolis, close to the mainland border, spanning more than 300 sq km. It will have up to 926,000 residential units – including 390,000 existing units in Yuen Long District and North District – able to accommodate 2.5 million people. The area will include up to seven border crossing points to further integrate our city with Shenzhen and the Greater Bay Area economic hub. This metropolis will complement her controversial Lantau Tomorrow plan, a massive reclamation project to the west of Hong Kong Island (which has been robustly attacked by environmentalists).

Our leader’s speech has also unveiled further measures to increase land and housing supply: making it easier for rural villagers to sell their ancestral land to private developers; additional rezoning of green belts for development; the MTR Corporation making available sites for a further 100,000 private-sector homes in the next decade; and more Urban Renewal Authority redevelopment studies. Is all of this enough? There will be plenty of dissenters.

Even so, don’t think the Chief Executive has gone gung-ho on her own volition; after all, like her predecessors, she’s allowed our housing woes to fester for the first four years of her term amid a tangled mess of government red tape, vested interests, greed in certain quarters and, most of all, a glaring lack of political will. No, she’s been handed this assignment by her bosses in the north.

In a rare public statement on the topic last March, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng commented: “Hong Kong’s housing issue is a result of Hong Kong’s history and development. It is not an easy task to solve this issue, but there must be a start.” The pressure was ramped up in July when Xia Baolong, Director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, issued a directive to eliminate so-called cage homes and subdivided flats. And in case our leaders still hadn’t got the message, Beijing’s top representative here, Luo Huining, last week visited a cage home – where 11 citizens had less than 20 sq ft of space each – and told media his “heart sank” at what he witnessed. He emphasised that not only did Beijing expect our government to address the housing shortage, so did the public. Ouch!

Why the angst? Hong Kong has topped the global list of most expensive housing markets for 11 consecutive years. The average cost of a 500 sq ft flat on Hong Kong Island is HK$9.5 million (US$1.2 million). Our government and developers have tried to “solve” the issue by building more affordable so-called nano flats – sometimes the size of a car-parking space – to the obvious detriment of residents’ long-term health and quality of life. Production of such flats made up 10% of the total private housing supply in 2020.

There are some 110,000 subdivided units in rundown old buildings across the city, where it is common for a family of four to share 120 sq ft of space. Meanwhile, the waiting time for public rental housing is 5.8 years, almost double the Housing Authority’s three-year service pledge. At the same time, younger Hongkongers have been priced out of the market. The proportion of homeowners aged below 35 has plunged from 22% in 1997 to just 7.6% now. In view of all this, drastic action is long overdue.

Before commencing her housing crusade today, our Chief Executive promised an all-out effort to meet the mainland’s Covid-19 control requirements for reopening the border. This despite no one being quite sure what these requirements are. She also reiterated that reopening the border with the mainland, rather than with other countries, is this city’s top priority. To absolutely no one’s surprise, government health advisor Professor David Hui has revealed that negotiations with mainland counterparts on any border reopening will take at least another four to five months.

Underscoring how much Covid-19 has changed our lives – and how long it is taking Hong Kong to return to some sort of normality – my Monday evening watching No Time To Die was my first visit to the cinema for 18 months. It was worth the wait. The best Bond movie ever, in my humble opinion. Of course, it is also Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 and some have suggested, UK opposition leader Keir Starmer among them, that it is time for a woman to take on the role. I have my doubts, personally. But this leads me neatly to the broader question of identity politics and woke culture, expertly addressed by Lord Ken Macdonald QC recently when he delivered our fourth HKU-Boase Cohen & Collins Criminal Law Lecture, “Free Speech in Universities”. If you missed it at the time, you can now watch it here – highly recommended!

Our Chief Executive, by the way, holds the title of chancellor at this city’s public universities, but prefers to stay out of campus matters. She has other priorities, especially now: housing, housing and more housing. It appears the messages from Beijing have left our leader – with a nod to 007’s bartender – if not exactly shaken, at least stirred.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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