Posted on 1 August 2011 - 10:07pm
Goh Ban Lee
HOPEFULLY, Himanshu Bhatt’s article, “The Balik Pulau dilemma” (The Nutmeg Verses, July 28), has attracted the attention of the Penang state government and local government leaders. There is little point in development if local residents do not enjoy some of its benefits.
Until the early 1990s, Balik Pulau, a place famous for durians, assam laksa and charming village houses nestled among fruit trees, was to be preserved as the food and fruit basket of Penang. Housing projects were discouraged.
This policy has changed. Unfortunately, new houses are selling far above the affordability of the locals.
The plight of the people was highlighted in the press on July 22 when member of Parliament for Balik Pulau, Yusmadi Yusoff, called on the state government to ensure that housing projects must be beneficial to the local inhabitants. He has recommended that members of the village development and security committees be consulted before approvals are given to development applications.
Yusmadi’s request is a non-starter. The approving authority for housing projects for the island, including Balik Pulau, is the One Stop Centre (OSC) in the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) with the municipal president as chairman and four councillors and heads of departments in the local council and state government as members. Tenants of the land to be developed and those living nearby are not involved.
At present, developers must build 30 low-cost houses for every 100 houses in development projects. As a general practice, ground tenants in Penang are usually given such units free of charge plus some moving costs.
The role of the state government in individual housing projects is limited. The state has a special category of land titles, commonly referred to as “first grade” titles, which do not require an application to change land use.
However, the state planning committee (SPC), which is chaired by the chief minister, is more influential, because it can pass policies which are binding on the MPPP, and thus the OSC.
Although state assemblymen and MPs have no direct role in the approval of development projects in their areas, most developers do not wish to aggravate elected politicians. Hardworking elected politicians can therefore improve the compensation given to affected tenants. But they have no influence on housing prices.
The problem faced by the residents of Balik Pulau is felt by most residents of Penang. From Batu Ferringhi in the north to George Town and to Teluk Kumbar in the south, the eastern part of the island also exhibits the same affordability gap syndrome, which even affects those having a household income of RM6,000 to RM7,000 a month.
Minor tinkering in development control and housing loans have little effect on speculation in the housing industry.
Without stiff measures from the federal government and Bank Negara to curb property speculation, the only effective strategy is for the state or federal governments to build affordable houses themselves.
So far, the proposal of building housing units costing below RM300,000 to be sold to first-time buyers, is more talk than action. If the Penang government is indeed concerned about what is going on, it should quickly activate the Penang Housing Board or direct the Penang Development Corporation to build houses that the people can afford.
Officially, the development of Balik Pulau, like all parts of Penang, is guided by the Penang Structure Plan that was gazetted in 2007. But it contains only general policies. The long awaited draft local plan is still a secret.
As such, a special area plan is urgently needed to ensure that Balik Pulau is developed in such a way that the locals are not pushed out. Agricultural areas need to be clearly protected. Developers looking for land must be told clearly that areas zoned for agriculture will not be rezoned for development projects and land speculators should be discouraged from looking to Balik Pulau to enjoy speculative gains.
There is some urgency in having such a plan for Balik Pulau. Land prices in this area have been increasing rapidly, including those with mature durian trees. It is doubtful if the buyers are keen on the durian business.
In the long run, Balik Pulau should have its own local council so that more local residents are the ones who decide on the development projects.
Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is a senior research fellow at Seri and interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning.