Yam unlikely herald for policy address

Editorial | Mary Ma 30 Aug 2018

Former Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief executive Joseph Yam Chi-kwong was stating the very obvious as he emphasized the necessity to drastically increase land supply to meet local housing requirements.

Isn't this exactly what the administration has been trying to do? Otherwise, there wouldn't be the "big debate" currently spearheaded by the government's Task Force on Land Supply, led by housing adviser Stanley Wong Yuen-fai.

Nonetheless, there's a rather eye-catching point in Yam's blog post.

He called on the government to maximize its role as the sole land supplier so as to keep a lid on land costs via the operation of a special purpose vehicle, which, he said, should be created with the support of the government's large reserves.

In recent memory, Yam was the first person close to the power center to make such a suggestion. But regrettably, he devoted only half a paragraph to the idea, without elaborating on enough details as to how it could make a difference.

Unless it's properly explained, more eyebrows will likely be raised.

First, there are already many government departments and authorities directly or indirectly involved in land policy. Why can't they - with a bit of reorganization - perform the role rather than creating a new company to replicate the works?

Instead of forming a new body, wouldn't it be more practical to split the Transport and Housing Bureau into two, so that they're more dedicated to their respective policies separately?

If the land shortage could be overcome by money, I trust the government would have solved the housing problem quite some time ago, even without the ongoing "big debate" that's due to conclude next month.

Is Yam offering a practical solution? Let's give him the benefit of doubt for the time being.

A question, however, is why the former HKMA head is making the proposal at this particular moment? Could Yam, as an Executive Council member, be paving the way for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to announce the special purpose vehicle in her second policy address in October?

I don't think Yam's opinion is representative of the government's view, although land and housing will undoubtedly stand out in the policy address.

A year has passed since Lam was sworn in as CE, and housing continues to be her No 1 headache. The current big debate with a view to expanding land supply is a step in the right direction, but sadly not producing a consensus.

Let's see what the task force is going to say in its interim report. Meanwhile, government officials had better lower public expectations beforehand so that the community won't be let down too much. Then, any suggestion that is better than average would be good news to boost hopes.

The problem preventing the SAR from producing enough land has little to do with money or the lack of a special purpose vehicle but with the diversity of public opinion.

It would be too ambitious to bridge the differences being exacerbated by social media. Perhaps, the government should just go ahead to do what's necessary - be it reclamation, public-private cooperation, or reintroduction of the old Letter A/B land swap system.

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