The government has rejected billionaire Lee Shau-kee's offer of a donation of farmland for building affordable homes and instead suggested he work with non-profit organizations - a move widely believed to have been taken to avoid giving any impression of collusion.
The chairman of Henderson Land (0012) said he would talk to NGOs and that he plans to gather 10 billionaires to help the one million people in Hong Kong who neither own a home nor are covered by social security protection. Lee, popularly known as Uncle Four, made the proposal in January.
But Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po yesterday said "ideals and conditions of land donors vary."
It would be best, he said, for interested donors to approach non-profit organizations "to take forward the projects to realize their ideals."
Chan said the Housing Society is an appropriate body to handle such proposals and it can expect to be backed up by the government.
Lee said yesterday he "understands the government's difficulties," and will partner with NGOs to develop the land.
"I thought as many as 30,000 people could benefit from my idea, but there are concerns about many things, from planning to the environment. "One million people [in Hong Kong] do not own their own homes and are leading difficult lives. I suggested we build homes to help these people to help reduce the social inequality."
Henderson is the largest holder of farmland, with 42.8 million square feet in its land bank. Last month, Lee proposed a donation of seven agricultural plots on which 10,000 small homes could be built.
In return, he asked the government to waive the land premium for converting the sites into residential use. The proposed homes would have been sold to young people for about HK$1 million, requiring no downpayment.
Apart from Lee, New World Development (0017) chairman Henry Cheng Kar-shun also said land donation was "a good idea."
But yesterday, Cheng declined to comment on whether the firm or he had been in touch with officials on the matter.
Housing Society chief executive Wong Kit-loong said it has yet to receive any proposal from developers, but will be happy to study the possibilities.
He said in evaluating any plan, the society will have to consider several factors, including how much land premium the government will charge and the planning conditions of the sites.
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum are disappointed by the government's decision.
Democratic Party's Sin Chung-kai said the government may be trying to avoid being viewed as colluding with the business community but it should instead aim for a win-win outcome rather than pass the ball to non- profitable organizations.
Chan Yuen-han of Federation of Trade Unions suggested the government come up with a set of open criteria for accepting land donations, rather than rejecting the idea altogether.
But Long Term Housing Policy Steering Committee member Michael Choi Ngai-min said the government's housing policy is to cater to the needs of people of all ages, and Lee's targeting the young generation will require extra discussion.
Waiving downpayments contradicts government efforts to control risks for lenders to deter property bubble, people familiar with the government's thinking said.
Henderson shares plunged 3.7 percent to HK$44.90, as hopes for boosting the firm's valuation through farmland donations vanished.