Lights dim on Building Bright

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Previously reported: $200 million in cuts in the lands planning spending means something is getting the axe. Strangely, not lands planning. (Photo: Ma Tau Wai incident)

 

Harbour Times took note of a  34.7% cut in the budget for Buildings, Lands and Planning in the Development Bureau, a curious move especially when the Government is supposedly searching for more land sites to convert for housing. Over two years, the cuts in BLP were over $200 million. In 2013-14, department spending was $527.6 million, dropping to $463.3 million last year and this year, will be only $302.4 million. This warranted investigation.

 

Misnomer: Not all planning

The Development Bureau explains the reduction is due to the Government winding down Operation Building Bright. Launched in 2009 by the then-Development Secretary Carrie Lam, the programme has two stated objectives: To help owners of some 3,100 buildings aged 30 years or over to carry out repair works and to create jobs for the construction industry which was battered by the financial crisis.

 

Repair work on 3,079 buildings and 96,310 households

 

Employment support

“We hope to create a large number of job opportunities for the construction industry, especially in the field of repair works, within the shortest period of time. According to our estimation, the campaign will create 10,000 jobs for construction and maintenance workers as well as related professional technicians, among others, in the next two years,” said Mrs Lam in 2009. At that time, the unemployment rate in the construction sector peaked at 12.8%. The Government calculated the number was even higher in the renovation and maintenance fields, with one in every five workers jobless.

In January 2010, the programme no doubt got a philip when 45J Mau Tau Wai Road collapsed, killing four people and displacing dozens more. This prompted the government to launch a wave of inspections of over 4,000 old buildings (older than 50 years) with two being deemed to require emergency remedial works and over 1,000 with ‘obvious defects’. Only 1,079 had ‘no apparent defect’.

As the economy, and construction, picked up the unemployment rate of the construction sector fell to 5.2% by the end of 2011. Now the common complaint is of current and future labour shortages in the sector and business is pressing hard to import labour.

 

Mission accomplished

Operation Building Bright was co-funded by the Government, the Hong Kong Housing Society and the Urban Renewal Authority. Initially, the Government contributed $1.7 billion and the other organisations each contributed $150 million. The Government then injected two more rounds of funding to the programme in 2010 and lastly in 2011, making the total contribution to be $3.2 billion.

The programme subsidised repair work on 3,079 buildings and 96,310 households, theoretically supported over 30,000 jobs for workers from when it first launched in 2009. It was scheduled to end this year but technically, the programme ceased in 2010. Operation Building Bright targeted old buildings with owners’ corporations. The last deadline was in late 2010 and now, households in buildings without owners’ corporations are nominated by the District Councils and selected by a Steering Committee, formed between the Building Department, Housing Society and Urban Renewal Authority, without the need to apply through the programme.

While the programme will probably end this year, bureaucrats who are involved in it will not be affected. The Development Bureau sole role is to wire the money to the two organisations. Staff in the Housing Society and Urban Renewal Authority are responsible for screening applications against a set of clear criteria and fund the repair works. The authorities claim that this task only takes away a little time from their other work.

“Having regard to the projected amount of uncommitted surplus [HT note: out of the $3.5 billion total funding, around $533 million remains in the pool] and progress of works of the assisted buildings for the period up to March 2016, it was considered that the funding provision for Operation Building Bright in the 2015-16 estimate could be reduced,” the Development Bureau explained to the cut in estimated expenditure.

So the sun of Building Bright begins to fall. A government make work project that may have helped provide a little more safety for people in old buildings at risk – until the economy stumbles again and the government sees the need to create jobs for the favoured construction industry.


For more details, contact reporter Calvin Lam at cl@archive.harbourtimes.com