Government's plan to buy properties for welfare facilities worthy of support
【譯文】The Legislative Council (Legco) papers submitted by the Labour and Welfare Bureau yesterday revealed that 158 new welfare facilities will be established across Hong Kong's 18 districts over 3 years. The plan earmarked HK$20 billion to purchase private properties for welfare facilities, and was first announced by the government as part of the 2019-20 budget. Buying up private properties and converting them to welfare facilities is an efficient, flexible and stable way to meet social welfare demands. Given that Hong Kong is in dire need of new childcare centres and elderly activity centres, the government's proposal is worthy of support. It is hoped that the Legco will pass the funding as soon as possible, so that the public can enjoy the benefits earlier.
According to the Labour and Welfare Bureau's papers to the Legco, of the 158 planned social welfare facilities, there will be 48 elderly activity centres, 28 childcare centres, and 15 elderly day care centres etc. Each of the 18 districts of Hong Kong will have at least one newly established childcare centre. For districts that have a greater number of young families, such as Sai Kung and Yuen Long, more childcare centres will be created. As for districts that have a comparatively older population, such as the Central and Western District and the Eastern District, more elderly service centres will be established. This shows that the proposed sites for new facilities have been carefully considered by the authorities This shows that the authorities have carefully selected each site in order to address the lack of welfare facilities in a focused manner.
There is a huge demand for child day care centres and elderly activity centres in local communities, but an insufficient number of said facilities means that applicants have to endure long waiting time. For instance, social welfare organisations that operate childcare centres have pointed out that the number of applicants waiting is five times the overall service capacity. The government's large-scale social welfare initiative is therefore reasonable and necessary, reflecting the public's best interests. Also, there were precedents for the government to purchase private properties for social welfare use, as the Social Welfare Department bought 63 venues between 1995 to 1998 for social services.
There are clear advantages for the government to adopt this approach. First, it is expedient. Aimed to secure funding approval from the Legco Finance Committee in July, the government anticipates that the first batch of properties could be purchased in the first quarter of 2020 at the soonest, with the planned facilities commencing by the end of 2020. The last batch would be purchased by the first quarter of 2023. If the government were to adopt another approach and seek land to build from scratch, it would take at least 10 years. When comparing the two, it is obvious that the government's current approach is more expedient and pragmatic. Second, it provides stability. Social welfare facilities operating on rented premises are often forced to close down due to landlords either increasing the rent drastically or terminating tenancy agreements. It has caused great nuisance to both service operators and users. If the facilities are operated on government-owned premises, these community welfare services will be more cost effective in the long run. Service continuity will also be greatly enhanced. Third, it is more flexible. Communities that are in dire need for elderly care services are usually located in older parts of the city where land for development is scarce. Purchasing properties from the private market can ensure that the services are in proximity of elderly users.
It is understandable that some may have concerns over a possible surge in private property prices due to government involvement. However, as the government's plan only targets non-residential properties, and that the overall area purchased per year is only a fraction of the overall stock, the impact on the real estate market is minimal. A mechanism has also been put in place in order to ensure that the prices are reasonable and the use of public funds optimised.
Some also criticised that the list of purchases submitted to the Legco lacked details, showing only the regional distribution.
However, if a detailed list of targeted properties is drawn and submitted to the Legco, it is very likely that some landlords would take the chance to effect a price hike. The government's current approach is more consistent with market practice in Hong Kong.
It is also a reasonable move to seek one-off funding approval from the Legco, as the government can avoid the risk of missing any market opportunities due to separate applications for funding.■Jeffrey Tse (email@example.com)
1. finance committee of the Legislative Council
2. Labour and Welfare Bureau
3. Social Welfare Department
4. Financial Secretary
5. Chief Secretary for Administration