SCMP Saturday, July 1, 2000

Tung accused of housing cover-up


The public are owed an explanation as to why Tung Chee-hwa waited two years to announce he had scrapped a key housing policy, say legislators.

The call came after the Chief Executive disclosed on Thursday that his much-vaunted target of providing 85,000 new flats a year had "existed only in name, not in substance" since 1998. The revelation came in an interview he gave to some newspapers - to mark the SAR's third anniversary - and was repeated in a television interview last night.

Although observers have long said the policy, blamed in some quarters for the property market slump, no longer existed, the claim was repeatedly denied by government officials.

The Democratic Party said in a statement last night: "We're deeply disappointed Mr Tung didn't explain the policy change to the public immediately . . . Why has he revealed it in an interview two years later? Why have housing official Dominic Wong Shing-wah and housing adviser Leung Chun-ying not uttered a word about it? Are they also being kept in the dark? Or does the Government want to cover it up?"

Democrat legislator Lee Wing-tat, a Housing Authority member until April this year, said: "It seems Mr Tung is the only one in the world who knows the policy has changed. I was on the Housing Authority for a long time and I never received any notice about it." The authority is responsible for providing 50,000 of the 85,000 homes each year, the rest coming from the private sector.

Liberal Party legislator Ronald Arculli said: "If Mr Tung says it was dropped two years ago, I don't know what Dominic Wong and Leung Chun-ying have been talking about. Perhaps the whole society has a big misunderstanding."

Chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong Tsang Yok-sing said: "As the policy only exists in name, why not drop the name? [The Government] shouldn't mislead the public."

The New Century Forum, which comprises non-affiliated lawmakers and professionals, said it was regrettable officials had issued a confusing message to the public for the past two years.

Mr Tung announced the 85,000 target as a key plank of his policy after taking office in 1997. He said the aim was to stabilise the booming housing market. In his 1998 Policy Address, after prices began falling, Mr Tung said he was reviewing the major components of the housing sector - public rental housing, the Home Ownership Scheme, "sandwich" class housing and private residential sector. He did not indicate a change to the target. In last year's speech, he did not mention the target.

But in last night's television interview, Mr Tung said: "Our policy actually changed in 1998. Why? Because external factors had made property prices drop. That's why we had a new policy. We said everything in 1998."

Also speaking last night, Mr Wong, Secretary for Housing, said 85,000 was just a target for land formation. He said the Government would still provide 50,000 public flats. The market would decide how many private flats were needed.
A government spokesman said the 1998 Policy Address had set out three housing objectives:

To provide rental housing to families in genuine need;

To monitor the Home Ownership Scheme flat sales programme and fine-tune it if necessary to ensure market stability;

To ensure the Government produces enough land to meet needs. This would help create a land bank to provide the foundation for a stable market. "The Government has focused on pursuing these objectives since 1998. In view of this change in policy, the target of 85,000 flats no longer exists," the statement said.