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Speech by the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Mr Michael Suen, during the debate on the Motion of Thanks in respect of the Chief Executive's 2003 Policy Address in the Legislative Council

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Mr Michael Suen, during the debate on the Motion of Thanks in respect of the Chief Executive's 2003 Policy Address in the Legislative Council today (January 16):

President:

I wish to highlight the major policy objectives and strategies of the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau for the coming five years, as well as to respond to the Honourable Members' views and suggestions.

Housing policy

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Last November I made a statement on the Government's housing policy to help rationalise the various housing targets and strategies, and clarify the role and positioning of the Government. I also announced a series of measures to help restore public confidence in the property market. As to how the property market would react to these measures, this would depend very much on the public confidence and external economic factors. After the current supply and demand imbalance has been rectified, the property market will continue to develop healthily. Our current task is to implement quickly the series of measures set out in the Statement on Housing Policy.

Premised on the principle of maintaining a fair and stable operating environment, the Government will withdraw from its role as property developer by halting the production and sale of subsidized flats and minimizing its intervention in the private property sector. In the next five years, we will concentrate our efforts on the following three major tasks:

(a) maintaining supply of public rental housing for needy applicants to meet the average waiting time of three years. We will monitor closely the demand for public rental housing through a rolling housing development programme that will be adjusted annually;

(b) continuing to provide assistance to families with special needs (including the elderly and hardship households), by providing well-equipped Housing for Senior Citizens and rental assistance to those families who encounter economic hardship; and

(c) adopting a more flexible mode of housing subsidies (e.g. rent allowance and loan) and reviewing the mechanism for the determination of domestic rents for public rental housing, pending the outcome of the current judicial review of the Housing Authority's decision to defer review of rents.

Looking forward, we will implement our public housing policy under the strict principle of ensuring the effective use of our valuable housing resources. Now I wish to respond to a few points and suggestions made by Honourable Members.

Rent Allowance Scheme

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One of our immediate tasks is to consider how we can provide housing assistance more flexibly. With a full range of facilities and a low rental level, public rental housing flats have been well received by the public. However, individual families may have different preferences in terms of living habits, district of residence, environment and facilities, and some may wish to opt for private rental housing. Against this background, the Housing Authority launched a pilot Rent Allowance for the Elderly Scheme in August 2001, under which senior citizens eligible for public rental housing may opt to receive allowance for renting a flat in the private sector of their own choice.

Rent allowance is a relatively new concept in Hong Kong. Drawing reference from the Rent Allowance for the Elderly Scheme, we are now considering, with an open mind, the possibility of allowing non-elderly families which are eligible for public rental housing to opt for rent allowance. The quota of rent allowance may be revised as appropriate in response to demand, by utilizing resources in the private property market. The implementation of the proposed General Rent Allowance Scheme needs to be compatible with the overall public housing policy. As such, we will consider comprehensively and carefully and discuss with the Housing Authority details of the scheme.

Retail and Car Parking Facilities of the Housing Authority

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Discussions between the Government and the Housing Authority on a new set of financial arrangements are underway. The Housing Authority will also conduct a detailed assessment of its financial position and future funding means, including studying the divestment options for its retail and car parking facilities for developing an implementation plan. The Housing Authority currently owns more than 130 commercial premises covering over one million square metres of retail area. It also owns more than 100,000 car parking spaces. Last year, the Housing Authority discussed possible ways to further privatize its commercial premises and car parking facilities to provide better and more effective services to its residents, and to optimize the commercial value of the facilities. The Housing Department has subsequently commissioned a consultancy for a preliminary study. Due to the rather complex nature of the issue, a more detailed examination is necessary before we can discuss it further with the Housing Authority.

Planning and Lands Policies

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The effective implementation of our housing policy would have to go hand in hand with comprehensive planning and lands policies. I wish to highlight our major tasks here.

Land supply

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Government would ensure a sufficient supply of land together with the necessary supporting infrastructure to meet market demand. In order to achieve this, we would put in place a comprehensive monitoring mechanism and an early warning system to ensure the timely provision of land for residential development. Furthermore, we would include various types of land in the Application List as appropriate to ensure that changing market needs are satisfied.

Small House Policy

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The small house policy involves a number of matters of principle and complex, interwoven issues. As such, I consider it necessary to review the subject in a comprehensive manner and identify suitable options for resolving the long standing problems associated with the policy. I will consult various stakeholders along the way and try to reach some tentative conclusions for further study and consultation with the community.

Building Safety and Maintenance

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The Urban Renewal Authority has been playing a pivotal role in carrying out a comprehensive urban renewal programme to address the problem of urban decay. However, redevelopment alone cannot catch up with the pace of urban decay. In addition, not all old buildings have to be pulled down; many may be renovated and restored. The Urban Renewal Authority is now mapping out its rehabilitation strategy to provide appropriate support to owners in older urban areas.

One of my major tasks in the next few years is to promote building management and to encourage property owners to accord importance to building maintenance and safety. We will consider how to encourage property owners to provide regular maintenance to their buildings. We will also initiate discussions with the concerned professional bodies, with a view to fostering the development of more comprehensive one-stop services in building management and maintenance for building owners.

Moreover, we plan to introduce the Buildings (Amendment) Bill into the Legislative Council in the current legislative session. The objectives are to rationalize and improve the regulatory regime of buildings and building works, as well as to strengthen statutory requirements on building safety. The Bill involves a number of proposals, including the introduction of a new category of "minor works" to enable qualified building professionals and contractors to undertake specified minor works. Such works include, for example, the erection and removal of signboards and the removal of unauthorized building works.

Planning for Hong Kong

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In the days ahead, we will formulate a long-term, forward-looking development strategy for Hong Kong. The Planning Department has commenced a study entitled "Hong Kong 2030 - Planning Vision and Strategy" with a view to formulating development strategies in respect of our land use, transport and environmental needs, to guide the territory's long-term development. Under the new circumstances, there will be room for us to apply the planning standards flexibly, to re-assess the development density of the new development areas and to provide adequate supporting infrastructure in response to the public's aspirations for better quality of living. During each and every stage of the Study, we will widely consult the public.

Industrial Land

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Against the background of Hong Kong's economic restructuring, Government has always been concerned about how to make better use of vacant industrial premises and industrial land, and how to improve the environment and associated facilities in old industrial areas. The restructuring of industrial buildings must be market-driven. In the course of the restructuring, the Government plays the role of a facilitator, helps simplify the procedures and enhances the flexibility for the use of industrial land. The restructuring of industrial buildings is an evolving process. We will continue to monitor market needs and reactions, listen to the views of the industry and make adjustments to our policy where appropriate. We will examine the feasibility of the payment of premium by instalment for a change in land use.

Conclusion

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Mindful of the latest developments in Hong Kong, my major task ahead will be to ensure that all available housing and lands resources are put to the best use. I will work together with the relevant public and private parties to achieve a synergy of operation in order to enhance efficiency and optimization in the use of resources and expertise. Lastly, I wish to emphasize that as one of the Principal Officials under the Accountability System, I will continue to enhance communications with the Legislative Council Members in order to foster mutual trust and cooperation, which is essential to ensuring the successful implementation of the various policies under my charge.

Thank you.

End/Thursday, January 16, 2003

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