Alliance For a Beautiful Hong Kong

Protect Beautiful Hong Kong

by John Batten

Carrie Lam’s ministers have now been on the job for one week. They are familiar names, mostly transplanted from CY Leung’s team, predominantly male, all government or government-friendly types. Carrie Lam has said that she will “bring in a new governance style” and “will strive to rebuild social harmony, enhance public confidence in the government and ensure that the government will better align its work with public expectations.”

She also said, “Officials on the fiscal side have no disagreement with my new philosophy on public finance management.” That is a crunch statement. Previously, she, as Chief Secretary of Administration, was the equal of then Financial Secretary, John Tsang. Any new government policy initiatives coming from her office still required financial support from the Financial Secretary. We saw previous tensions about funding of government initiatives resurfacing between Lam and Tsang during the Chief Executive election. Now, Lam as Chief Executive will have more room to lead and fund new policies. But, Hong Kong follows British government administration traditions: finance policies, through the fiscal controls of the Treasury, do not follow the whims of a changing political leadership. Hong Kong’s Treasury Department will undoubtedly remain prudent. Hong Kong’s fundamental economy, public finances, land revenue-raising, $HK dollar peg to the $US dollar, low taxation, protection of favoured businesses and vested interests, and social policies including public housing, universal hospital coverage and minimal social welfare provisions, will all remain unchanged.

So, Lam’s “new governance style” will not see great policy changes, but rather follow her own personal style. She does suffer fools and bureaucratic silliness. She will want her ministers to be on top of their portfolios: be prepared for meetings, read briefing papers, know the issues and manage the ups, and more importantly, the downs of their areas of responsibility. I imagine Lam’s ministers will be talking more to the press, and meeting a wider range of people rather than just sector interests.

The appointment of former Democratic Party founding member (who was often labeled the party’s chief strategist) Law Chi-kwong as Labour & Welfare Secretary could be interesting. He has been a consultant for several past government enquiries and has long been embedded in government decision-making. I attended sessions of the review on urban renewal about 6 years ago, led by Law. The enquiry covered many issues around urban renewal and the controversial part that the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) plays. Attendees at the review’s discussion sessions often perceived Law as a supporter of the urban renewal status quo rather than as an impartial facilitator. Despite a long list of unsatisfactory practices of the URA, the urban renewal review resulted in not much change – except in one minor aspect.

As a university social work teacher, Law Chi-kwong knows that social work responds to systemic issues of inequality and inequity and naturally acts as an advocate for the poor, sick, young and vulnerable. Social workers, however, often work for and act in the name of the state and on behalf of government agencies – their work can seemingly be in conflict with the above basic ethos of social work.

One of the (many) controversies in which the Urban Renewal Authority was embroiled was its employment of social welfare agencies to do the ‘dirty work’ of encouraging, persuading and cajoling people living in urban renewal sites to accept URA compensation and move, some into public housing. Many URA development sites have properties owed by wealthy landowners and property speculators; residents are often not actually owner-occupiers. For example, many of the residents of the Graham Street Market redevelopment in Central were poor people from the Indian sub-continent, who worked as cleaners and restaurant workers. They lived there because the old tong lau flats were affordable accommodation – similar to the recently partly-collapsed flat in Hung Hom.

For both the Graham Street Market and the Staunton Street (H19) Comprehensive Development Areas, the URA employed social work agencies to ‘lobby’ residents to accept compensation packages offered by the URA, rather than, as the agencies should have been doing, working on behalf of residents to get a better ‘deal’. This was an untenable situation for social workers – and now social work agencies no longer act on behalf of the URA!

The URA is still trying – after ten years – to redevelop the Staunton Street area, but times have changed, the residents are now predominantly wealthy owners who have proudly renovated their old tong lau. There are few poor residents to be re-housed. As part of Hong Kong’s old city, the area would better to now be preserved (with a low-rise height restriction) to complement the nearby preserved PMQ, Bridges Street Market and historic landmarks associated with Sun-yat Sen. Besides, it is in within the notorious Mid-levels building exclusion zone of fragile topography and unpredictable water courses running down from The Peak.

Government can take the initiative here: cancel the redevelopment and endorse the area as a low-rise heritage zone. That would be decisive decision-making that even the Treasury would support as it has few fiscal implications!

Photo caption:
Running water from dangerous Mid-levels wall near Staunton Street urban renewal development site

DSC03118johnBcropJohn Batten is an art critic, and convenor of the Central & Western Concern Group

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