Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

Mixed Success

Daniel Sin – SCMP – Updated on Oct 11, 2008

The chief executive set a hefty agenda in 2007 and achieved much of it, but many targets were modest and major challenges remain, writes Daniel Sin in his final article ahead of Wednesday’s policy address

Twelve months ago, the chief executive made more than 60 pledges to promote economic and community development and foster social harmony. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s 2007 policy address was titled “A New Direction for Hong Kong” and, to achieve this lofty goal, he proposed 10 major infrastructural projects, a number of measures to protect the environment and conserve heritage, and various initiatives to improve the welfare of the poor.

One year on, many of his environmental and welfare proposals have come to fruition, but his success with the infrastructural projects has been mixed.

And experts argue that many other achievements – on the environmental front, in particular – are limited by the fact that the targets were modest. Little progress has been made on air pollution, for example, the single biggest environmental issue.

Mr Tsang predicted that the infrastructural projects, which he intended to press ahead with during his term of office, would create 250,000 jobs and add more than HK$100 billion to the economy.

Of the 10 projects, only six have definite construction timetables: the MTR South Island line; the Sha Tin-Central rail link; the West Kowloon Cultural District; the Tuen Mun Western Bypass; the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok link; and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge. All are targeted to start before 2011.

Timetables for the remaining four – the Kai Tak development, Lok Ma Chau loop, Chek Lap Kok-Shenzhen Airport rail link and new development areas in the northern New Territories – are less definite.

Legislator Patrick Lau Sau-shing is confident the rail projects will proceed as scheduled but he is alarmed at the lack of progress with the Kai Tak project, which comprises a cruise terminal and various low-density residential developments and community facilities.

“The chief executive should give up-to-date progress of the various projects,” Professor Lau said. “All the issues have been resolved and there should be nothing to hinder the development of Kai Tak. The government should speed up the project.”

The engineering sector is not overly concerned about delays as long as works contracts can be churned out steadily to keep the industry occupied, according to Institute of Engineers vice-president Reuben Chu Pui-kwan.

“Delays in construction projects are not uncommon, particularly where the community plays an increasingly greater role in development projects. And for projects that involved co-operation with, and participation of, mainland authorities, progress is sometimes beyond the government’s control,” Mr Chu said.

“What the government should do is to phase in the infrastructure projects, and should have longer-term planning on the works programme. This would ensure that the sector would have steady demand. In the past, projects were either cramped together at the same time, leading to a sharp increase in the salaries of engineers and workers, or we had no projects at all.”

Lawmaker Raymond Ho Chung-tai agreed that Mr Tsang should push ahead – at least to the stage where major works contracts could be tendered out.

However, he was concerned about there being insufficient consultation.

“For projects such as the Lok Ma Chau loop, and new development areas, the government must do a better job on environmental protection and conservation. Public consultation should be conducted thoroughly, even if it means some delay to the works schedule,” said Mr Ho.

That was preferable to aborting works at an advanced stage when the government had to revise its plans.

He said the Kai Tak cruise terminal was a classic example. Because the government had decided to build it on its own, he was worried it would not canvas the views of future operators.

“I am concerned that the government would construct something that the trade cannot use,” he said.

Mr Ho hoped the policy address would include some evidence that the government was planning beyond the projects already announced.

“For example, the financial secretary chaired a committee to look into the north Lantau Island development a couple of years ago. Nothing has been heard since. The chief executive should explain what progress has been achieved and should consider reviving the logistic parks proposal,” he said.

With regard to the environment, Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of green group Friends of the Earth (HK), said Mr Tsang appeared to have achieved a lot because he had cast his net wide.

The government has issued carbon-audit guidelines, concluded an agreement to better regulate emissions by power companies and introduced a law requiring a changeover from industrial diesel to ultra-low-sulphur diesel. It has also implemented the Greening Master Plan, and injected HK$1 billion into the Environment Conservation Fund to step up education and research.

Mr Lau said the government’s achievements were modest. The power companies had plenty of room to reduce emissions and their schemes of control were due for renewal anyway, so it wasn’t hard to put higher emission standards in the new agreement.

And the diesel changeover was insignificant because the level of industrial diesel use was low, he added.

However, little progress had been made with the most pressing environmental concern – air pollution.

“People consider air pollution as the most serious [environmental issue], but has the chief executive given the strongest prescription to cure the problem? Are the measures effective? A few years ago, the government set aside HK$3.2 billion as subsidies to encourage drivers to replace heavy-diesel vehicles with cleaner models. However, the take-up rate has been very low. Many polluting vehicles are still on the road,” said Mr Lau.

“The government should do more. It could impose a timetable to require truck operators to replace polluting vehicles while at the same time increase the subsidy. This will give the trade both a carrot and stick to help improve air quality.”

Mr Tsang has completed the public consultations he promised on mandatory implementation of building energy codes, and on legislation requiring motorists to switch off idling engines.

However, Mr Lau felt that these were not enough. “Conducting public consultation is easy. It is more important to implement the legislation and, even then, there must be sufficient resources given to enforce the regulations to ensure that they are fully compiled with.

On heritage conservation, the government has imposed a requirement for impact assessments on all public works projects involving heritage sites.

Earlier this year, a commissioner for heritage office was set up and a financial assistance maintenance scheme launched to encourage private owners to protect their historical buildings. Heritage activist Daniel Cheung said the government should be doing more to promote the maintenance scheme, including meeting owners of historic buildings and encouraging them to apply.

Mr Cheung suggested Mr Tsang set up a task force to co-ordinate the efforts of different departments in conservation matters.

“There are legal, financial and administrative issues to sort out among government departments. A central co-ordinating body is required to put efforts together.”

One area in which Mr Tsang does get a pass mark is that of social welfare. Hong Kong University social work Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun said Mr Tsang had delivered what he promised in setting aside HK$1 billion to fund 3,000 three-year employment opportunities for young people, set up the Task Force on Youth Drug Abuse, and provide 12 years of free education.

He noted that the government has spent HK$300 million to set up the Child Development Fund, pledged HK$60 million for improving residential care for the elderly, and earmarked another HK$200 million for home maintenance for the elderly.

Professor Chow cautioned that there were three issues that still had to be addressed.

“The chief executive has announced that government would promote social enterprise actively but, apart from organising a summit last year, little has been achieved. With unemployment likely to rise, and poverty becoming more widespread, the government must put more effort into this area. In the Hong Kong context, social enterprises may not create as many jobs as the chief executive has hoped unless government can secure co-operation from large corporations.” He doubted if that was possible.

Professor Chow said there also needed to be a clear direction on whether the old-age allowance should be increased.

“I would suggest that, rather than giving an across-the-board increase, the government should provide an income supplement to those elderly people who do not meet the asset-limit criteria to receive comprehensive social security assistance payments, but are still facing financial hardship,” he said.

Professor Chow also said that little had been done to improve the conditions of the poor in remote areas like Tin Shui Wai. “The proposed housing scheme for elderly persons in Tin Shui Wai is not an elderly home project. It would not contribute towards creating significant employment opportunities in the area. The government speculated that some 800 jobs can be created, but it would be lucky to have 200,” he said.

“And the suggestion to promote factory outlet business is not practical because the location is too remote to attract shoppers.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *