Land offer shows social conscience

Editorial | Mary Ma 26 Sep 2019

As Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is set for her peace-making dialogue later today, the thunder was unexpectedly stolen by New World Development's announcement of donating 3 million square feet of farmland for public and social housing.

It is a massive amount, amounting to nearly one fifth of the farmland currently held by the group.

If Lam's officials have hinted little at what she is going to say at tonight's dialogue session at Wan Chai's Queen Elizabeth Stadium, deputy commissioner of the Foreign Ministry's office in the SAR Song Ruan yesterday ruled out any chance of her conceding further to protesters' demands during the dialogue.

In the absence of conversation on politics, will the session dwell on housing?

That would not surprise me in the least as it's blatantly clear housing will form the backbone of Lam's upcoming policy address as her administration is desperate to put an end the social unrest that is now well in the middle of the fourth month.

It is advisable that Lam should keep her policy document focused as length means nothing if it's only full of wishful thinking. In the absence of the freedom to include democratic reforms in the policy address, housing is the only significant policy area that she can act on aggressively.

New World's timing of the announcement was most likely a coincidence since it always takes a while to work out a deal, even with a non-government organization.

In the current case, the memorandum of understanding with social venture Light Be has been signed for over a year to enable the NGO to develop a few sites near MTRC's Tin Shui Wai station for social housing for low-income families with children, who will be charged rents below market rate. Light Be will pay New World a nominal rent of HK$1.

Nonetheless, the announcement by New World's third-generation princeling Adrian Cheng Chi-kong was timely, coming when mainland state-owned propaganda doubled the rhetoric to blame developers in Hong Kong for the city's housing woes.

Although the harsh words stopped just short of inciting class warfare, housing is undoubtedly a crisis that must be solved by all means possible.

New World's pledge to donate 3 million square feet of farmland should be welcomed. If valued at HK$1,124 per square foot - the compensation figure offered by the Lands Department in April - the estimated worth of the donation would be HK$3.37 billion.

If it were merely an exercise in corporate image building, it would be too costly a program.

It would be unfair to question the motive as some are already doing if the donation was intended to soften the threat that Lam's administration is ready to invoke the powerful Land Resumption Ordinance extensively to recover private land for public housing.

While that's a probability, nobody should rule out the third generation's commitment to social responsibility.

New World isn't the first to donate land for charitable causes, though. Henderson Land Development's "Uncle Four," Lee Shau-kee, previously donated sites for building retirement homes and youth hostels.

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