Back in July 2007, the then Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen made a decision to take apart the erstwhile Health, Welfare and Food Bureau and re-organize it into two separate policy bureaux: the Food and Health Bureau, and the Labour and Welfare Bureau.
At the same time, he also re-organized the then Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau and the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau into the Development Bureau and the Transport and Housing Bureau respectively.
The rationale behind creating a single Transport and Housing Bureau was that public transport planning and housing development are interrelated and often go hand in hand.
When the third-term Hong Kong government began approaching the end of its term, the problem of housing shortage in the city started becoming a bigger issue. And the government was aware that boosting housing supply would become the top policy priority for the next administration.
It was against this background, and given the direct correlation between land supply and housing supply, the government recommended breaking up the Transport and Housing Bureau into two individual policy branches, so as to allow a single bureau to stay focused entirely on land and housing development, while the other could concentrate on transport policy initiatives.
This proposal had by and large managed to gain the support of lawmakers from across the political spectrum, and would probably have been approved by Legco back in 2012, had it not been for the administration’s insistence on pressing ahead with other unreasonable arrangements such as opening the new positions of deputy chief secretary and deputy financial secretary.
As a result, the entire bureau reorganization proposal was thrown out by the legislature.
While the plan to deconstruct the Transport and Housing Bureau was shelved, Hong Kong’s problem of land and housing shortage has continued to worsen in recent years, and the government has been largely fighting a losing battle in tackling this pressing issue.
The result is that the average waiting time for Public Rental Housing (PRH) flat applicants has hit a record high of 5.5 years, according to the latest figures published last week.
Meanwhile, both land premium and property prices in the private market have continued to skyrocket over the past several years, with fewer and fewer people in the city being able to become homeowners.
As far as transport is concerned, things aren’t looking good either, as the lack of oversight and poor handling of matters of the Transport and Housing Bureau have taken a heavy toll on the daily lives of the citizens.
For example, the recent territory-wide traffic chaos in the morning following Typhoon Mangkhut and the massive service breakdowns along the MTR Tsuen Wan, Kwun Tong, Tseung Kwan O and Island lines all indicated that the Transport and Housing Bureau was weak in responding to emergency public transport situations.
Worse still, the recent work-quality scandal related to the MTR Shatin-Central link project and the subsidence problems found in several MTR stations are further proof that the Secretary for Transport and Housing, who is also a sitting member on the MTR Board, had failed in his duty to provide effective oversight of the public transport system and ensure proper response to emergency situations.
As both the housing woes and public transport problems in Hong Kong have developed to an extremely severe stage, things would definitely get even worse in the coming days if we continue to rely on a single policy bureau to oversee the city’s housing and public transport issues.
As such, perhaps it is time for the government to take up once again the issue of breaking up the Transport and Housing Bureau.
While the “human dimension”, i.e. the quality of the person who does the job, plays a fundamental role in determining whether the administration can improve its management of the housing and public transport policies, the situation could definitely be enhanced if the administration divides better the responsibilities between different policy bureaux.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 19
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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