Rights: Only for Hongkong developers
inordinate power of property developers and their ability to bend the
Government to their interests is a familiar enough topic. It was evident
enough before 1997 and their power appears to have been increased by
the subsequent collapse of the real-estate bubble.
else can one explain the public suggestion by one prominent member of
the Real Estate Developers' Association that the cartel which it represents
should conspire to boycott land applications to create a shortage and
so push up prices, to the detriment of the public and of government
revenues? In many countries that would be a criminal offence.
one cannot blame developers for wanting to maximise their profits. Some
blame for property-developer power attaches to the erratic policies
towards land and housing that the Government has pursued in recent years.
Some is also due to the close connections between top officials and
his selection as Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa was a partner of Li
Ka-shing and others in real-estate development.
blame must certainly go to the way numerous senior public servants have
retired to cosy jobs in the property sector. And some is due to a naive
but common belief in government that strong property prices are a good
in themselves, rather than being the outcome of broader economic success.
must also go to the lack of transparency in government procedures which
may encourage interested parties to seek back-door approaches. The way
the CyperPort project was able to bypass all known development routes
may have been an exceptional case.
as revealing has been the recent court case of Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum
and her fight against the Government for penalising her company, Chinachem,
$550 million for late development of a site. Chinachem's original plans
had been rejected on height grounds. A key figure in the case is Executive
Council convenor Leung Chun-ying, a property expert who previously represented
major developers, including Ms Wang, in their dealings with the Government.
his evidence, Mr Leung asserted that the then-secretary for planning,
environment and lands, Bowen Leung Po-wing, now Hong Kong's representative
in Beijing, made a verbal commitment to him that Chinachem would not
be penalised. Bowen Leung has denied it, saying that it was ''extremely
impossible''. At least he was contrite. He admitted that, ''I should
have told them, `Don't come to me''', but added that they kept coming
the rights and wrongs, the case is a poor commentary on government procedures,
as it shows the informal access, on more than one occasion, that Leung
Chun-ying and Ms Wang had to Bowen Leung, bypassing formal procedures.
Everywhere in the world, lack of transparency and bypassing of proper
procedures in dealings between government and the private sector is
a major contributor to corrupt practices, as is lack of adherence to
right to know is not only due to the public for its own sake, it is
the sunlight which keeps systems disinfected. Just how obscure and untransparent
development procedures can be I have myself just discovered at first
the Apple Daily newspaper published a list of developments which had,
it said, been approved by the Buildings Department in September. It
included the building where I live and of which I own one-twelfth (there
are 12 flats in it). This was the first I or my owner-occupier neighbours
had heard of the apparent attempt by the owner of one half of the building,
which shares common areas and access, to redevelop his half of it without
the knowledge or consent of the other half.
went to the Buildings Department to find out more, but despite persistence,
I was confronted by a wall of silence. Officers would neither confirm
nor deny the newspaper list of approvals and refused to provide any
information. They advised that a brief account of September building
approvals would be published in due course on the department's Web site
but I had no right to see any drawings or other details.
were described as the ''copyright'' of the developer and his architect.
This seemed to me an extraordinary abuse of the law of copyright. It
appears just a cover for secrecy and for untransparent dealings between
a developer and the department.
what can a member of the public do in the face of such refusal of government
departments to be responsible to the public? If the department is correct
in saying it has no obligation to give me information about a development
which affects my own property rights directly, and the public indirectly,
there can be no way of knowing whether the design is in accordance with
the plot ratios and lease terms of the land.
information means no oversight. Are we expected to trust government
departments with an appalling record of losing public money to developers?
I do not.
my experiences of the past few days, it comes as even less of a surprise
to find out how often ''technical mistakes'' by officials concerned
with land and buildings can cost the public purse huge sums, to the
profit of developers. The latest government audit report revealed a
reserve price undervaluation, amounting perhaps to $1 billion, due to
''loopholes in building classification'' on a site acquired by Sino
Land, which was able to increase the developable floor area by 20 per
coup brings back memories of the notorious 1994 case of Coda Plaza in
Garden Road. Li Ka-shing's Hutchison group found a way to put up a 24-storey
building on a site intended by the Planning Department for seven storeys.
I remember all too well writing in the early 1980s about a ''small mistake''
in the pricing of the land premium on a Central office development -
what is now Fairmont House.
government auditor looked into the case and found that hundreds of millions
of dollars in land revenue had been lost
the value of development rights in Hong Kong, the need for transparency
in applications, approvals and changes in zoning, plot ratios, land
use rights etc is absolute and imperative. The secrecy of the Buildings
Department is outrageous, but may be all too typical.