Former Sec. Transport and Housing: Modernising means splitting department, accommodating sharing economy (i.e. Uber)

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In an exclusive interview with Harbour Times, Anthony Cheung, former head of the Transport and Housing Bureau, discusses his work in the government and what lies in Hong Kong’s future. Read Part I by clicking here.

When Anthony Cheung reflects on his time as the secretary for transport and housing, he takes some pride in his achievement in making Hong Kong more accessible and connected, but admits housing remains a challenge.

Megacity needs expansion

Capacity constraint, according to Mr Cheung, is a constant challenge that the government must address.

“When I landed on this role, I came to realize how limited our land supply was. The land ready for building homes was so scarce,” he speaks of his time leading the bureau, adding that increasing land supply is of utmost importance.

“The growth of resident population leads to higher demand for housing and bigger flats. There is housing demand for living as well as investing,

“Traffic congestion is also getting worse. Road capacity cannot catch up with the growing number of vehicles. There is not enough infrastructure. We need to increase the capacity of Hong Kong,” he says.

“Never a white elephant”

Despite widespread criticism of multibillion projects, Mr Cheung argues the city needs more infrastructure to keep the city competitive.

During his tenure, he pushed ahead the controversial third airport runway project. “Without a third runway, our competitiveness will be undermined and our position as an aviation hub could be replaced,” he argues.

“There has never been a white elephant project in Hong Kong’s history. People used to criticize the West Rail as a white elephant project. Today, it has exceeded its capacity and needs expanding,” he argues.

For the same reason, he defends the much-debated high-speed rail link and the bridge that connect Hong Kong to mainland China.

“Housing is my biggest regret”

Given the importance of Hong Kong’s connectivity, Mr Cheung spent most of his time on dealing with transport issues. But it was the housing problem that drove him to join CY Leung’s administration. He was originally invited to lead the new housing department proposed by Mr Leung, but reform did not take place in the end.

Until now, property prices in Hong Kong have only soared despite government efforts. Mr Cheung admits his efforts and that over the government have been in vain.

“We all know, and agree, that more homes are needed. But each of the 18 districts opposed building homes on their land. And every option had been met with opposition.”

“We tried to avoid the overheating of the property market. We worked with different departments to come up with measures to curb it,” he added.

“Housing is my biggest regret, as affordability remains unresolved today,” he says.

His legacy in terms of housing was proposing a rolling 10-year housing supply target. “It did not mean to say we have the supply, but we could tell the public clearly how much land we needed on a scientific basis,” he says.

He defends against critics of his tenure, arguing problems cannot be solved in one day, and policies take time to shape.

What should come next?

Having both housing and transport on one’s shoulder is not easy. Recent reports have suggested the bureau Mr Cheung once led to split up. He agrees.

“For work efficiency and better policy making, housing and land supply should be put together into one unit. Transport is broad enough to become an independent unit,” he says.

And in light of sharing economy, an emerging global trend, he stresses regulations modernise, supporting regulating car-sharing service Uber and other bike-sharing services.

“Using new technologies is a global trend and Hong Kong must follow suit. However, it should not mean that new business models are exempt from regulations. After all, these are still private companies that seek profits,” Mr Cheung says.

(Printer – R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)