The small house policy was first enacted in 1972 as a temporary measure to address the housing needs of the indigenous villagers in the New Territories. It allows male indigenous villagers to apply to build a small house within their village once in their lifetime. The policy has long been criticised as unsustainable and outdated – open to abuse, corruption, speculative development, environmental damage and is a form of discrimination against women. However, it has been in place for more than four decades.
The Hong Kong government said it would initiate a review in 2002, but so far nothing has happened. In a recent reply declining an invitation to a radio show to discuss the policy, the Development Bureau once again stated that the government recognised the need to review the policy and the other land use-related issues. But when?
In a recent public opinion survey report released by Civic Exchange, close to 60 per cent of respondents said the government should review the policy immediately and another 20 per cent said it should do so before 2017. If we look specifically at the responses from male indigenous villagers (that is, the right holders), over 40 per cent of them said the government should immediately conduct a review.
In the same survey, almost two-thirds of the respondents “very strongly” or “strongly” supported changing the policy. It seems that people are ready for review and reform. When will our administration be ready?
Obviously, there are people in the community who advocate scrapping the policy, but a consensus on this move at this stage may be hard to reach.
However, this does not mean we should sit still and do nothing. The many issues involved are bubbling up. The government should, at the very least, consider taking the following action.
First, impose a moratorium on the resale of small houses. While we were informed that some villages have voluntarily prohibited the resale of small houses to indigenous villagers of other villages or outsiders, these are exceptions to the rule. If the original intent of the policy was to address the housing needs of indigenous villagers, action must be taken to prohibit its abuse. Over 70 per cent of the general public and 56 per cent of the right-holding respondents supported this recommendation.
Second, strictly enforce residency requirements when granting or rejecting small house applications. There is no reason to grant small house plots to villagers who emigrated overseas long ago, no longer have real ties to Hong Kong, and who will sell their small houses as soon as they are allowed. There was a judicial review case in 2012 between the Lands Department and an overseas indigenous villager whose application for a small house was rejected. The judge stated that the indigenous villager did not fulfil the residency requirement. There is a precedent here.
The small house policy is on the government’s agenda, but it does not seem to have received the required attention. We are not seeing pink elephants; the problem is real, and its environmental and social effects are becoming more and more obvious. It would be wise for the administration to seriously consider taking the above-mentioned measures and initiate a review sooner rather than later.