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Speech by URA Chairman, Mr Barry Cheung, on "Urban Renewal – the New Horizon" in the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors Annual Conference

Speaking after Serena and Prof Cheung about land and housing supply is like talking to Bruce Lee about kung fu. You are all experts and our partners.

Prof Cheung has just outlined the government's vision and blueprint. Now it is my turn to speak for the URA.

I wish to give you a broad brush picture on how urban renewal contributed to land and housing supply in the past decade, how we plan to proceed in the future, and what we will need from the government and experts like you so that we can make a bigger and quicker contribution.

First, let me give you some numbers that show our contribution. To date, the URA has launched a total of 55 redevelopment projects. When these projects are completed, they will translate into the following figures: 

  • 19,000 new residential units
  • 37,000 square metres of public open space
  • 75,000 square metres of government/institution/community facility space
  • 490,000 square metres of commercial space &
  • 120,000 square metres of land for other purposes

I don't mean to bore you with these dry numbers. But they are necessary to help you understand our mission.

Now, let me tell you what's new at URA. As a result of extensive consultations, a new Urban Renewal Strategy was introduced last year in February. The community now has a clear and strong consensus on what urban renewal can and should do to tackle the problem of urban decay, and improve the living conditions of over 110,00 families in our city.

We at the URA already have our own aggressive 5-year plan in place, by which we will invest no less than $25 billion in urban renewal. With this budget, we can do bigger things for our peoples' housing needs, for example:

  1. We shall take on more and bigger redevelopment projects. By bigger, I mean projects that will exceed 1,000 sqm per project. There will be some 10 such projects in the next 5 years. Naturally, bigger projects will provide more flats and more planning benefits to the community.
  2. There is something exciting on the horizon for us. In February this year, the Financial Secretary asked the URA to undertake a new program to redevelop old industrial buildings which are relics of our industrial past. We will start two projects this year as a pilot scheme to release land for housing and commercial development. This is a new venture for us, and I welcome it with open arms.
  3. If you have been following the news, you might have heard of the term "demand-led" project which I introduced at last week's press conference. Essentially, what this means is that owners can approach us collectively for redevelopment, provided two thirds of the owners agree to sign and 80% of them accept our offer. In the past 10 years, the URA used to pick its own projects, and the owners were the last to know. But all this is changed under the new Urban Renewal Strategy that I just referred to.  Last year, we received 25 applications from owners, and selected 3 projects that met all major requirements. Last week, 80% of owners of one of the three projects accepted our acquisition offer. Now the first ever "demand-led" project can begin. This may become a very popular concept. In fact by late August, we have received another 34 applications for "demand-led".  Stay tuned for more news on this front.

As I said, we welcome bigger projects so that we can make a greater impact on Hong Kong's housing solution.

Even so, I must point out that land and housing supply is only a by-product of our core mission. Let me explain.

The URA has a unique role to play. To help you understand better, let me try to answer a couple of questions that may be on the minds of many: "In what ways do we differ from a private developer?"and "Why do we need an Urban Renewal Authority? "

First of all, unlike private developers, though self-financing, we are not profit-driven. We are mission-driven. We are here to do something unique.

Understand this: Hong Kong is a congested city with many aging and dilapidated buildings in its older urban areas. By now, all of you are familiar with the ugly names people give to our slum dwellings: cage homes, coffin homes, "tong fong" (劏房) etc. If I may be blunt, for a prosperous city like Hong Kong, with a GDP per capita exceeding US$34,000, the existence of these substandard and sometimes unsafe buildings is an indictment against the City's development.

The URA therefore sees its mission as lifting tens of thousands of our people from being trapped in these inhuman habitations. To do this, it takes more than demolition and reconstruction. In this sense we form part of the government's bigger social and housing solution, except we are always looking beyond buildings and housing supply. There is a social dimension to what we do.

We are good at multi-tasking, offering a diversity of challenges and services. We partnered with the Government and Housing Society to carry out much needed repairs and maintenance works. With our assistance, over 1,800 blocks where 80,000 families lived will be able to repair their buildings through the Government's "Operation Building Bright" and our building rehabilitation plans. .

As Chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority, I don't get much of a chance to blow our own trumpet. So, today, I ask you to be kind. Allow me to put our best foot forward. In the past, we would go on study tours to see how other cities or jurisdictions handle urban renewal. I am happy to say that these days, we have become the object of curiosity by other communities, with visiting delegations coming from Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Australia, South Africa and over dozens of cities from the Mainland. They are curious about our approach and hungry to know what we have been able to do with urban renewal. Some are curious why we are able to carry out expropriations without ugly street demonstrations or confrontations, and how we can do so without forcible evictions with their bad publicity and bitter aftermath.

If I may sum it up, our operative word is "engagement" , a"communicative"model, in which we thoroughly consult our stakeholders and even marginally affected people.  The core message we communicate to the public is that we are here to improve their quality of life and that of the larger community.  In an overcrowded city with many aging neighborhoods, sometimes, this means providing cultural and arts experiences or amenities to the residents. Other times, it means that our small team of volunteers would fan out across the neighborhood to check up on ailing elderly people living alone and needing referrals to care agencies. We make their well-being the central focus of our efforts. We want to do the utmost for the disadvantaged in high-density areas where overcrowding and poor living conditions have created many social problems.  We are proud of our highly "interactive" approach to our mission that makes Hong Kong a template for civilized societies.

We may be a relatively small player in the housing market at this stage. But this may soon change. With big chunks of the city occupied by poorly maintained buildings, the URA's role will only grow bigger in the years to come.

A URA study shows that by 2030, there will be an estimated 16,000 buildings that will have exceeded their 50 years' designed life. Many of these have degenerated into slums. To date, the URA has enabled more than 34,000 households to move out of shocking and shameful living conditions.

Because of the urgency of our needs, I am impatient to achieve quick results. But as you all know, when a project entails land or property, we must do everything that is procedurally prudent. This involves going through time-consuming consultations. We have no quarrel with that. We know that most of time, we can only move at "prudent speed" , not "Hong Kong speed" .  But this does not mean that speed cannot pick up.

Without sacrificing or shortchanging the public's right to be consulted, I would like to see us cut out unnecessary red tapes and procedures. Housing is the number one social issue in Hong Kong in terms of urgency. To offer a significant solution we must move at the legendary Hong Kong speed, and yet stay within the limits of procedural fairness. I wish I had a magic wand to make things happen overnight, without ruffling any feathers. With the support of surveyors, the HKIS, and the Government, we may get quicker and bigger results sooner.

At the URA, we never forget that we are here to serve our community and our people, and that is our privilege and our mission.

Thank you.