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A tip of her hard hat


After five years at the helm of the city’s development, Carrie Lam says she has done her best. But she’d like to see thorny land policies and a welfare revamp resolved

Olga Wong and Joyce Ng
Jun 14, 2012

Sitting in her office at government headquarters in Admiralty, overlooking the newly reclaimed waterfront, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – who’s reputed to be tough – makes a confession.

As the end of her five-year tenure approaches, she admits she has been unable to resolve problems arising from the controversial small-house policy – which grants male indigenous villagers in the New Territories the right to build a house near their ancestral homes – because the government is not ready to tackle them.

Since 1972, the policy has allowed those villagers to build a three-storey house, with up to 700 square feet of space on each floor. But it has been abused by some for quick profits.

“I confess that I can’t do it because we don’t have that readiness to tackle such a big subject,” she said candidly.

This is a rare admission. The minister has never backed down in the past when faced with tough issues, from relocating the historic Queen’s Pier to make way for a bypass, to amending the law to make it easier for developers to acquire flats in old buildings for redevelopment.

She stood her ground on a plan to take away floor-area concessions from developers and in dealing with angry rural representatives who burned her in effigy after the announcement of a policy to clear long-standing illegal structures.

Although Lam’s “can-do” spirit seemed to dim on the small-house policy, she said the problem still needed tackling through high-level co-ordination. Lam, who is tipped to be the next chief secretary, said she was willing to confront the issue soon by calling on the incoming administration to end the policy.

There are numerous hot-button issues awaiting her if she serves another five years. She hopes the new administration can realise some of her ideas, including an overhaul of the welfare system and the establishment of a harbour authority, something she has pledged to achieve.

“I told David Akers-Jones that I would not allow the small-house- policy file to be stuck in my in-tray,” she said, referring to the former chief secretary who advised chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying during his election campaign on a review of the policy. Akers-Jones administered the policy in the 1980s.

Lam said she gave up trying to resolve the small-house problems halfway through her term, when she found nothing could be done in the short term.

Firstly, she said, it is difficult to enforce the law in the New Territories. There was strong opposition, for instance, from villagers who were told to remove extra storeys built on their houses without permission from the Buildings Department.

Second, the government had to be pragmatic: it could not simply end the policy without compensating villagers who stand to benefit from it. This is something that may not sit well with urban dwellers, who already complain of unfair treatment.

“At least I didn’t compound the problem by giving [the villagers false] hope,” said Lam.

Rural villagers – including Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, who has been appointed an Executive Councillor – have repeatedly demanded more land for small-house development.

Those lacking land for further expansion can apply for a village expansion area [VEA], a measure introduced in 1981 allowing the government to use private land outside the village and provide infrastructure. Lam said she did not grant a single one during her term, explaining: “If the demand is infinite, how many VEAs would I have to create? Also, tension between the rural and urban sectors would be intensified as there’s already not enough land for building public flats.”

Rural land is rapidly running out, with just one-third of the original 4,960 hectares made available for small houses remaining, according to the Development Bureau.

Lam said drawing a line to end the infinite demand for village houses would send a clear signal that the government should no longer widen the rural-urban gap.

Another of her battles will be reforming the heavily criticised social welfare system, an idea that has been deeply rooted in her mind since she headed the Social Welfare Department from 2000 to 2003.

Lam said she had “two unfinished agendas” when she left the department. One is a coupon system for elderly beneficiaries that would allow them to freely choose the institutions they want to stay in, rather than be allocated ones that usually provide cheap, unsatisfactory services.

The second one is what she called “a whole new paradigm shift to deal with poverty” – an overhaul of the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme. “The scheme, by design, cannot reach out to certain people for whatever reasons. Sometimes for a noble reason, these people don’t want to go on CSSA because of social stigma,” she said.

Lam, who has no deputy and often works long hours, is well known for initiating cross-disciplinary projects and policies that need other bureaus’ support.

One example proposed during her tenure is the plan to establish a harbour authority, a dedicated agent to upgrade the city’s waterfront, which would require the input of transport, marine and lands officials and those managing open space.

Public consultations, passing the required legislation and obtaining lawmakers’ approval for the authority’s funding is likely to take several years, and will fall to the future Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau, to be supervised by the financial secretary. Lam said “someone is watching” to ensure the plan won’t be shelved by the next administration.

Having described Victoria Harbour five years ago as an unpolished diamond, Lam said the government would not let the waterfront lie idle any longer. Various organisations have shown interest in occupying the newly reclaimed waterfront sites in Central before they are tendered out early next year, she says. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and Tourism Board plan to hold a concert and festival respectively.

The tenders are expected to bring public arts exhibits, pop-up restaurants and even a Ferris wheel to the Central waterfront. If the government worked in concert, she said, the harbour could be more vibrant with the introduction of large-scale water taxis, similar to the Thames Clippers in London.

Commenting on the role of the Culture Bureau, a new body to be formed and supervised by the next chief secretary, Lam said culture should be encompass city planning, education, industrial development, commerce, and promotion both overseas and on the mainland.

“The Culture Bureau is not just the usual LCSD culture,” she said, referring to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which is often criticised for being too bureaucratic and lacking in vision.

While Lam has repeatedly topped public opinion polls – partly due to the fact she has dealt firmly with property developers and rural villagers who are increasingly seen by Hong Kong urbanites as “common enemies” – it is unlikely that her popularity can stay at such a high level.

If she does become chief secretary, Lam will deal with even thornier issues such as political reform, and other matters that ride the tide of public approval and disfavour.

But when asked if she had any worries about the immediate future, she replied: “I never consider popularity in my work … It doesn’t bother me at all.”

She pointed out that if popularity was her main concern, she would not have opted for two widely criticised moves. One was her decision to cut CSSA by 11 per cent during the economic downturn in 2003. Another was amending a law in 2010 making it easier for private developers to acquire old buildings by lowering from 90 per cent to 80 per cent the threshold for triggering compulsory sales of remaining unsold flats in a block.

“I do it because I truly believe it was necessary to make a caring and just society. I never have this illusion that I will be popular in whatever position,” she said.

Despite the rocky patches during her term, Lam looks back on her track record with a measure of pride.

“The past five years were very, very exhausting,” she said. “But it was a very fulfilling five years, especially now. Wherever I go [in the city], I can point to my son and say, ‘Your mum has a part to play in this.'”

Known for rarely taking a break from work, she has recently been told to take it easy. Her doctor advised her to control her blood sugar.

However, Lam, looking at her future, says: “It seems I will have no break.”


2007 Went ahead with Queen’s Pier demolition despite public opposition

2007 Halted attempt by the owner of King Yin Lei to deface the Stubbs Road mansion only after they had started to do so

2008 Came under fire after buildings officers failed to order maintenance work for an old tenement in To Kwa Wan before it collapsed and killed four people.

2009 Announced the demolition plan for the West Wing of the Former Central Government Offices on Government Hill

2010 Curbed a policy that allowed developers to build green features in residential projects at low cost and include them as part of the gross floor area, making the flats look cheaper on a per-square-foot basis

2010 Got lawmakers to amend the law of compulsory sale for redevelopment, making it easier for developers to acquire old buildings

2011 Launched a “flat-for-flat” option under the new Urban Renewal Strategy. It offered new replacement flats for homeowners affected by URA projects, though the owners have to move to smaller homes if they get the option for free

2011 Announced plans to make Ho Tung Gardens a monument. The owner objected and some lawmakers hesitated to pay billions of dollars to the owner as compensation

2012 Cracked down on illegal additions to village homes, prompting fierce opposition from villagers.


If a prerequisite for this open forum was to require the government or myself to pledge a “no-relocation, no-demolition” for Queen’s Pier, then, sorry, I can’t do it.

July 2007: on the demolition of Queen’s Pier in Central

I have never seen a developer willing to scale down its projects by this much … it has fulfilled corporate social responsibility.

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