Hong Kong’s Spaghetti Junction in policymaking

Friday, October 14th, 2011
The Hong Kong Government's Spaghetti Junction

Spaghetti Junction is the best description of Hong Kong government policymaking and Chief Executive Donald Tsang's latest (and last) Policy Address is a classic example.

At the start of his speech, the Chief Executive quoted his 2007 election manifesto: "I envisioned generating economic development through infrastructure development. At the same time, we must balance development needs with environmental protection and conservation to create a better living environment".

Were his ambitious infrastructure projects used to push Hong Kong higher up the environmental ladder, as promised? Yes, environmental impact assessments were carried out. But their primary objective was to ensure the projects went ahead. They were not intended to seek the highest possible environmental outcomes.

Another lost opportunity is the new government headquarters at Tamar. It could have been a world-class green complex. But that would have taken time, and the Chief Executive was in a hurry. He wanted the massive complex to be completed within his term of office, which made it impossible to design and build an environmentally high-performance structure.

The story is much the same with another high-sounding policy proposal. In his 2009 Policy Address, the Chief Executive announced a three-year program to tackle Hong Kong's redundant factory buildings that menace us with more urban blight. Starting in April 2010, approval would be given for vacant or under-used industrial buildings to be converted to other uses or redeveloped.

Unfortunately, the Chief Executive left implementation to the Development Bureau and forgot to involve the Environment Bureau which is charged with promoting energy efficiency. The opportunity was lost for making approval of applications for conversions or redevelopment conditional on achieving high energy efficiency in addition to overall environmental performance.

In this year's Policy Address, the Chief Executive finally made a serious effort to tackle the acute housing crisis. He promised that the government will make available enough new land to supply an average of 40,000 residential units a year. Half the new homes will be publicly subsidized and built by the Housing Authority and Housing Society for public rental housing, as well as for sale as Home Ownership Scheme and 'My Home Purchase Plan' flats.

The much-needed expansion of Hong Kong's housing program represents an exceptionally huge opportunity for our city to go truly green. For virtually no additional cost, our people could experience a new level of comfort in their homes, with superior environmental performance – provided that the officials overseeing the program adopt the right standards of design, construction and building management. But there was no mention of any of this

In terms of office space, the Chief Executive's vision is for East Kowloon to become another core business district, providing another 4 million square meters of office space. The area for redevelopment will include the old Kai Tak Airport and parts of Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay.

The original commitment promised a district cooling system as a special green feature. This year's Policy Address added a pledge to enhance pedestrian access networks as well as other unspecified "greening features".

Once again, the Chief Executive had missed a trick. The public was offered no explicit comprehensive policy and no commitment to international best practice for the area's environmental performance.

Economic policies are no better co-ordinated. The Policy Address confessed that the infrastructure building programs will strain the available manpower supply. Instead of a practical solution, all the public got was a reference to the HKD100 million (USD12.8 million) earmarked last year for the Construction Industry Council to help upgrade workers' skills through training and trade tests. Plus a suggestion that public education might be useful in attracting more young people to the industry.

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