PWSC: Strike, counterstrike

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Pan-Dems strike

By seizing control of the Public Works Subcommittee (PWSC), the pan-Dems, led by PWSC Chairman Alan Leong, hope to control the agenda of the PWSC to greenlight programmes they support and hold hostage ‘controversial’ programmes to force change or use them as bargaining chips for other legislative priorities. Their plan was to move ‘less controversial’ topics (popular with their base, like schools and community centres) to the front of the agenda. Ideally, they could be seen to move projects popular with their supporters forward, and filibuster – or stop – government priorities not aligned with theirs.

By tradition, the Chair (typically pro-establishment) has not used their power, granted under Rules of Procedure, to control the agenda for items to be discussed. They have normally preferred to defer to the government to set the agenda. Leong is perhaps the first to choose to exercise that power. Leong is exploring his ability to set the agenda, awaiting responses from the Government and legal advisers. However, the Government is not waiting on niceties and is moving ahead with its own plans.

Government counterstrike

The Government sent Leong a response that 13 applications in the original agenda would be delayed, by withdrawing their submission to the committee. This leaves the PWSC Chair with no choice but to move controversial projects to the front of the agenda and discuss them first.

Accordingly, strategic studies for artificial islands in the Central Waters, the Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point and its associated works-site formation and infrastructure, and the planning and engineering study on Sunny Bay reclamation have moved to the fore and will generate fireworks – and pose a trap for the government and business community.

Artificial Islands

PWSC continues its consideration of funding ‘strategic research’ into an artificial island in central waters. It is budgeted is $226.9 million. Discussions started on this funding proposal June 18. The studies are to explore the feasibility of constructing artificial islands in the central waters between Hong Kong Island and Lantau, including the development of an East Lantau Metropolis.

From the proposal made by the Government, over $140 million will go to Consultants’ fees. The fees will include 7 areas:
Engineering feasibility and infrastructure study,
Preliminary planning proposals,
Port operations and marine traffic and safety study,
Strategic environmental assessment,
Fisheries impact assessment,
Consultation exercises with relevant stakeholders, and
Supervision of associated site investigation works

Some question the effectiveness of building an artificial island or islands. James Tien Pei-chun ( GC- New Territories East, Liberal Party) admits that Hong Kong lacks land. However, he said developing an artificial island is “extraordinary” as the labour cost and construction costs are huge. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung (GC- New Territories East, Labour Party) criticizes the proposal for not covering the scale of the artificial island or the estimated cost of the reclamation. Cheung considers the omission “unreasonable” and urged the administration to conduct Social Impact Assessments. Some members challenged why the administration chose an area near Lantau to be studied for development, given its ecological sensitivity. There is also concern it will trigger strong opposition, like the North East New Territories New Development Areas.

The increased cost of new Boundary Control Point

The Director of Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD), with the support of the Secretary for Development, proposes increasing the estimated cost of site formation and infrastructure works in Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point by over $8.7 billion from around $16 billion to more than $24 billion. The stated causes for the additional costs rests mainly with the recent surge in construction prices and poor ground condition for tunnelling works.

In a sense, this project is a national priority. The Liantang/ Heung Yuen Wai Boundary Control Point project is included in the national “12th Five-Year Plan” and it will be one of the major mainland gateways between the Shenzhen and Hong Kong in the coming years. The Finance Committee last year approved $16.2 billion to carry out the project.

The issue has been discussed in the Panel on Development. Ip Kwok-him (FC- DC 1st, DAB) said that the public would find a deviation of more than 52% from the original cost estimate “unacceptable”. Members cast doubt on the accuracy of the Government’s estimation of project costs and the adequacy of the methodology adopted. Kenneth Chan Ka-lok (GC- Hong Kong Island, Civic Party) pointed out that Finance Committee had approved funding of $265.8 million in early 2011 for the Administration to commission the detailed design and site investigation to take forward the development of the site. He asked why the information about the poor ground condition had not been made known to LegCo Members at an earlier stage. The administration responded that It was not possible for site investigations to provide 100% accurate information on actual ground conditions.

Sunny Bay reclamation

The Director of the CEDD proposes a planning and engineering study on Sunny Bay reclamation at an estimated cost of $100.5 million.

Members questioned the use of the reclaimed land. Alice Mak Mei-kuen (GC- New Territories West, FTU), in an earlier meeting, pointed out that the proposed reclaimed land at Sunny Bay would not be suitable for housing development due to its vicinity to the airport. The planning intention was to develop the area into a leisure and entertainment hub with diversified tourist facilities. However, she had reservations as to whether the Study should adopt this planning intention as a starting point as there were already other projects on Lantau for developing commercial and tourist facilities. Some members worried the reclamation at Sunny Bay would have a further adverse impact on Chinese White Dolphins and their habitat.

Not dead, sleeping

HT contacted the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau to ask about their decision to withdraw the 13 project funding applications. The spokesperson responded that from past experience, it will be difficult for the subcommittee to handle 20 projects, so they just submitted seven projects for members’ consideration. The spokesperson emphasised that the Government is not going to withdraw the 13 projects from PWSC claiming, “It will depend on the progress of the progress, and submit the remaining projects to future meetings.”

In the meantime, those that would have benefited from being on the the fast track will have to wait. Where government and pan-Dems priorities align, the government has shown it is willing to let lower priorities be sidelined while it seeks to push higher priority agenda items and seek to make the pan-Dems look like the obstructionists. Pan-Dems will protest that, given the controversy expected on some projects, the government is deliberately slowing the progress of projects by withdrawing ‘easy’ projects from consideration.

The populist trap

All this is being played out against the backdrop of Occupy Central and democratic reform. The engineering, construction and consulting industries are booming right now and not likely to be putting pressure on the government yet. However, there will be a near future where the government appears completely unable to project costs and complete projects. This will force them to squeeze contractors on price and reduce the flow of new projects to the sector.

When this happens, industry may begin to put pressure on government to smooth legislative workings by showing some flexibility in other areas – like democratic reform. There are already cracks showing in the business community frustrated with the government’s seeming inaction on the discord in the community.

Furthermore, when one examines the projects sidelined (see chart) and those the government has put forward first, it provides a prime opportunity for pan-Dems to portray the government as prioritising the needs of the national government (border crossing) and development, construction and consulting industries over the needs of families struggling with access to regular and special needs education and community facilities. No one wants to be the bad guy and business is going to get hit again with this perfect populist set up.

Between jabs to their reputation and roundhouse punches to their bottom lines, look for more complaints from the business sector as PWSC politics play out.

Delayed is denied: 13 Projects on Hold
Project
Constituency Impacted
Reprovisioning of Pak Tin Community Hall and special child care centre-cum-early education and training centre in Pak Tin Estate redevelopment site, and construction of footbridge link at Nam Cheong Street, Sham Shui Po
Pak Tin community – seniors and youth.
Families of children with special care needs in Pak Tin.
Pedestrians in Sham Shui Po.
Development of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility
Hong Kong Residents
Construction of Rank and File Quarters for Customs and Excise Department at Yau Yue Wan Village Road, Tseung Kwan O
Customs and Excise staffers hoping for new and better housing.
Government Complex in Area 14 (Siu Lun), Tuen Mun
Residents in Tuen Mun
Sports centre in Area 24D, Sha Tin
Sport Lovers in Sha Tin
Shek Wu Hui sewage treatment works-further expansion phase 1A
Residents in Shek Wu Hui
Retrofitting of noise barriers on Tuen Mun Road (Town Centre section)
Residents living next to Tuen Mun Road near the Town Centre
A 36-classroom primary school in Area 36, Fanling
Parents and students who need to fight for a place to study in Fanling
Two Special Schools at Sung On Street, To Kwa Wan
Families of children with special needs in To Kwan Wan
Construction of an annex to Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School, Shatin, New Territories
Students and Teachers in Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School
A school for social development for girls at Choi Hing Road, Kwun Tong, Kowloon
Girls in Kwun Tong needing help with serious behavioural challenges
Tuen Mun sewerage, stage 1 & Upgrading of Tuen Mun sewerage, phase 1
Families in Tuen Mun
Pilot Study on Underground Space Development in Selected Strategic Urban Areas
Hong Kong Residents
Engineering and Construction contractors

Pan-Dem Proposal

Chair Alan Leong didn’t propose a legislative agenda for the PWSC. However, his pan-Dem ally, Sin Chung-kai (GC- Hong Kong Island, DP) previously proposed this sequence. Community first, megaprojects second.

A 36-classroom primary school in Area 36, Fanling
Two Special Schools at Sung On Street, To Kwa Wan
Construction of an annex to Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School, Shatin, New Territories
A school for social development for girls at Choi Hing Road, Kwun Tong, Kowloon
Reprovisioning of Pak Tin Community Hall and special child care centre-cum-early education and training centre in Pak Tin Estate redevelopment site, and construction of footbridge link at Nam Cheong Street, Sham Shui Po
Sports centre in Area 24D, Sha Tin
Shek Wu Hui sewage treatment works-further expansion phase 1A
Tuen Mun sewerage, stage 1 & Upgrading of Tuen Mun sewerage, phase 1
Government Complex in Area 14 (Siu Lun), Tuen Mun
Development of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility
Retrofitting of noise barriers on Tuen Mun Road (Town Centre section)
Ma On Shan development-roads, drainage and sewerage works at Whitehead and Lok Wo Sha, phase 2