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Hong Kong leader unveils ambitious housing plan at 'new start' for development

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivers her annual policy address at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong China October 6, 2021. — Reuters pic

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HONG KONG, Oct 6 — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Wednesday the city was at a new starting point for development under a national security law imposed last year and her priority is to focus on tackling a long-standing housing shortage in the Chinese-ruled city.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing have long blamed unaffordable housing in the former British colony for deep-rooted social problems that they say helped fuel anti-government protests in 2019.

At the centre of plans unveiled by Lam in her last policy address in this term of office was a new city in northern Hong Kong, on the border with the mainland’s technology hub of Shenzhen, covering 300 square kilometers with, ultimately, up to 926,000 residential units for some 2.5 million people.

“Fortunately, the implementation of the National Security Law and the improvement to our electoral system have restored safety and stability in society. Hong Kong is now ready again for a new start for economic development,” Lam said.

Beijing imposed the law in June last year. It punishes what authorities broadly define as secession, sedition and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in jail.

Critics say it is being used to crush freedoms promised under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed when the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing and the city government say the law is needed to safeguard prosperity and stability and guard against outside interference.

Lam’s focus in her speech was on ensuring affordable housing for the city’s 7.5 million people, with the highlight the plan for the Northern Metropolis, to be developed into an international innovation and technology hub with the creation of more than 500,000 jobs and complementing the city’s role as an financial centre, Lam said.

“(It) will be the most important area in Hong Kong that facilitates our development integration with Shenzhen and connection with the GBA,” she said, referring to what is known as the Greater Bay Area.

Lam said she was confident that Hong Kong would be able to meet a shortfall of land in the medium to long term with policies including land reclamations and the Northern Metropolis.

Hong Kong already plans artificial islands, estimated to cost at least HK$624 billion (RM335 billion) — the city’s most expensive infrastructure project — with up to 400,000 housing units across 1,700 hectares of reclaimed land between Lantau island, where the city’s airport is located, and the main Hong Kong island.

‘Gross interference’

Making housing more affordable has been a priority for all Hong Kong’s leaders since 1997, although the prospect of owning a home is still a distant dream for many.

Even residents with good jobs and salaries have struggled to get on the property ladder.

Private home prices hit a record high in July, buoyed by limited supply and large flows of capital from mainland buyers.

Last month, Reuters reported that Beijing had given a new mandate to the city’s powerful tycoons in a series of meetings this year that they should pour resources and influence into helping solve the housing shortage.

The average waiting time for public housing in Hong Kong has climbed steadily and now stands at more than 5.5 years.

Compounding the problem, home prices in former farming areas about an hour’s commute from the heart of the financial centre have also surged, buoyed in part by mainland parents eager to educate their children in the city.

At the end of her address, Lam thanked Beijing and her family for support during “unprecedented pressure” she faced since 2019 due to circumstances including the anti-government protests and “the incessant and gross interference in Hong Kong affairs by external forces”.

“The driving force backing me up in overcoming all these challenges comes from the earnest words of the central Government that it will always provide staunch support to Hong Kong, my pledge to always stand by the side of the people of Hong Kong when I took office, and the unfailing trust and support of my family,” she said tearfully. — Reuters

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