Photos by: Luís Almoster
From consultation after consultation to meeting after meeting, from rejuvenation of old neighbourhoods to urban renewal, the redevelopment of old districts, particularly on the Macau Peninsula, has been stalled despite being on the government’s agenda for nearly a decade and a half.
Now residents in dilapidated residential blocks in old neighbourhoods like Iao Hon and the northern district might have their hopes shattered as the government has recently taken a U-turn on its stance: there is no plan at the moment for legislating urban renewal. And, rarely, all sides across the political spectrum unanimously slam the Administration for its inaction and its unwillingness to assume responsibility in the face of hardship and hurdles.
All the recent controversy about the city’s urban renewal blueprint, which was previously known as the rejuvenation of old neighbourhoods, started with the Administration’s sudden decision in April to commission a third-party firm to study the relevant matter and conduct public consultation; namely, the percentage of ownership required for old buildings to be demolished and rebuilt, and the temporary housing scheme for those residents during the process.
These topics have been discussed by the Urban Renewal Committee – a government-appointed council convened to advise the authorities on urban renewal policies – in a total of 18 meetings over the past two years.
The controversy further intensified when Raimundo Arrais do Rosário, Secretary for Transport and Public Works, surprisingly remarked in a legislative session in May that the government has no timetable or plan to propose legislation on urban renewal affairs, in stark contrast to the previous stance the government has adopted in recent years.
As recently as November 2017 Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai On reiterated that the Administration attached great importance to urban renewal and would quicken the relevant legislative process.
Mr. Rosário’s tendentious comments led to both the authorities and Urban Renewal Committee members publicly trading blame. While the official said the advisory body has never advised the government should come up with any urban renewal legislation Ron Lam U Tou, one of the committee members, slammed Mr. Rosário’s remarks as “untrue.”
“Many committee members have urged the government to draft urban renewal rules as soon as possible since the set-up of the committee,” he said. “I regret what he [Mr. Rosário] said.”
As the authorities have previously spent a long time drafting a bill on the rejuvenation of old neighbourhoods, Mr. Lam thinks the Administration should compile a new urban renewal regime based upon the previous draft. “But the government’s stance is to start over again from scratch,” he noted.
The redevelopment of old neighbourhoods first appeared on the government’s agenda in 2004 when former Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau Wah first talked about the rejuvenation of those areas. Following public consultation exercises and the setting up of an advisory body on the matter, officials unveiled a bill on the redevelopment of old neighbourhoods in 2011.
The bill, however, was scrapped two years later on the grounds that it did not address the latest changes in society. The Administration later noted that the concept of urban renewal would replace the concept of rejuvenation of old neighbourhoods on the official agenda with the set-up of an advisory body, of which Mr. Lam is a member, in 2016.
Another committee member, speaking on condition of anonymity, also lamented Mr. Rosário’s remarks as “unfair” and “unacceptable” and not truly reflective of the committee’s discussions.
2004: The year the government first proposed the idea of the redevelopment of old neighbourhoods
“From the real estate side to representatives from civil organisations, committee members have been committed to pushing forward urban renewal and have done a lot of work over the past years,” said the member.
“In the past 14 years, only four old or dilapidated residential blocks in the city have been redeveloped with the assistance of associations,” said legislator Ho Ion Sang
Over the past two years, the committee has agreed that the ownership approval for the redevelopment of buildings of 30-40 years of age would be lowered to 90 per cent from full ownership, while the percentage was 85 per cent for buildings aged 40 or above; in cases of major public interest or when buildings were to be demolished, the approval ratio could be lowered to 80 per cent.
“The committee has actively followed up on various urban renewal topics but the Administration has not been co-operative, and unwilling to provide more information when asked,” the member slammed. “The attitude of the officials is that they don’t want to push forward anything that they deem may prove contentious.”
“You can’t do anything if you think the less you do the fewer mistakes you will make,” the member continued accusingly.
Beyond the committee, political observers also condemn the government’s latest stance. “The officials have talked about it [redevelopment of old neighbourhoods] for more than a decade and we have waited for more than a decade [with no outcome],” legislator Si Ka Lon noted.
“The government has already done a lot of research on the topic [so I don’t understand why] it has decided to commission a third-party company to do research and consultation again,” he slammed. “This shows the government doesn’t want to assume any responsibility . . . dragging out the matter.”
The Administration opened a public tender in May requesting a firm to study various issues – namely, the ownership ratio, temporary housing, compensation for those affected, initiatives for promoting urban renewal and other considerations. The firm should also assist the Administration in conducting public consultation and analysing the opinions collected. Society is worried the process may last beyond end-2019, the end of the five-year term of the current Administration, which might further complicate the government’s work on the redevelopment of old neighbourhoods
“As the government has to provide temporary housing [for those affected], it probably thinks it is hard to find any available land plots so it tries to stall the issue whenever possible,” the legislator reasoned. He added that the government should have made good use of the idle land plots it has taken back for temporary housing.
Who takes up the baton?
For more than a decade, residents – primarily the elderly – in the seven dilapidated residential blocks in Iao Hon thought they would be the first batch of people to benefit from the redevelopment of old neighbourhoods, with the district once pinpointed by the government as a pilot area for redevelopment. But Mr. Rosário remarked in May that it had no plan for Iao Hon, adding owners, associations and interested developers could redevelop buildings in the district on their own.
“Macau is an executive-led political system, which means the government has to take the lead in [implementing policies],” said Lok Wai Tak, a member of the Urban Renewal Committee
Refuting the official’s claim, legislator Ho Ion Sang highlighted the difficulties for owners to redevelop on their own: “In the past 14 years, only four old or dilapidated residential blocks in the city have been redeveloped with the assistance of associations.”
His group, the General Union of the Macau Neighbourhood Associations, one of the most prominent grassroots groups in the territory, has assisted in the redevelopment of buildings like Edificio Koi Fu in the past decade.
“Only with the government’s lead can the entire old neighbourhoods be redeveloped with better ancillary facilities like community facilities and traffic infrastructure to enhance the livelihoods of residents,” added Mr. Ho
“Over 4,000 buildings here are over 30 years of age and more than 1,000 buildings are over 40 years of age . . . with many in shabby and unhygienic condition,” said the lawmaker. “I believe every resident in the old neighbourhoods was utterly disappointed by [the government’s latest stance],” he continued, adding the government should not be afraid of hardship in rolling out policies and measures.
Real estate developer Lok Wai Tak also thinks the government should take up the baton in the urban renewal process of the city. “Macau is an executive-led political system, which means the government has to take the lead in [implementing policies],” said Lok, who is also a member of the Urban Renewal Committee.
“Without the relevant legislation to lower the percentage of ownership approval for redevelopment it is impossible to kick-start redevelopment in any districts here,” he added, urging the government to prepare the relevant legislation as soon as possible.
“If some officials don’t want to do the work . . . the Chief Executive should be personally involved and lead the work of urban renewal,” he concluded.
What has the Urban Renewal Committee accomplished?
The committee has deliberated upon various issues with regard to urban renewal in a total of 18 plenary meetings over the past two years.
- Temporary housing scheme: Committee members suggest authorities set up the scheme for those affected by the redevelopment of their homes, whereby the government could either provide subsidies for them to rent homes or build temporary homes from the city’s land reserve.
- Taxation benefits: Members agree that the government should lower or exempt some levies for the redevelopment of residential blocks. The government finished discussing a relevant bill this April, subsequently submitted to the Legislative Assembly for deliberation. Under the current legal framework, owners must transfer their property rights to a contractor before redevelopment, with stamp duty levied upon the contractor, which is regarded by the government as buying all the flats. After redevelopment, the contractor will transfer the property rights back to the owners, whereby the contractor will be deemed the seller and may be levied a special stamp duty of up to 20 per cent, while the flat owners will be regarded as buyers and also levied stamp duty. The proposed bill exempts all these duties to facilitate redevelopment.
- Percentage of ownership approval: Compared with the current rules that require all owners of a building to consent before redevelopment, the committee suggests the ownership approval for redevelopment of buildings of 30-40 years of age be lowered to 90 per cent, while the percentage be 85 per cent for buildings aged 40 years or more; in the event of major public interest or the building being demolished, the approval ratio could be changed to as low as 80 per cent.
- Compensations for owners: The committee suggests owners of buildings being redeveloped be either granted a new unit in the new building or compensation equal to the value of the unit they own.
- Gov’t-owned firm: As the Administration proposes the establishment of a fully-controlled firm to facilitate urban renewal in the city the committee has discussed the composition, capital amount, goals and capabilities of such a firm.
- Others: The committee has also studied streamlining approval procedures and other policies for promoting the rejuvenation of industrial buildings, as well as improving subsidy schemes for maintaining old buildings in the territory.