Leung Chun-ying, the embattled chief executive of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, vowed during his inaugural policy address today to tackle the city's housing crisis and poverty while furthering economic development.

"With sustained economic growth, we will be able to properly address our housing, poverty, aging population and environmental problems," Leung said Wednesday.

Leung laid out the government's policy blueprint for the next five years during a two-hour speech, which came on the heels of a failed impeachment attempt by Leung's critics in the legislature.

CBC in Hong Kong

Meagan Fitzpatrick has been posted to Hong Kong to bolster CBC's coverage of a dynamic region of the world. Hong Kong is known as an international financial centre, but there is much more to it than that, and it has close connections to Canada. The city of seven million hosts nearly 300,000 Canadians, and about 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent make their home in Canada. Meagan Fitzpatrick is a senior online writer who covers national news and federal politics in CBC's Ottawa bureau. 

He said the housing shortage will be the government's top priority in the years ahead.

Leung's own home – and the additions made to it without government approval – had landed him in trouble. There was the recent impeachment attempt, and protesters in the streets of Hong Kong have called for Leung's resignation.

Leung, who has been in office less than a year, is also viewed by some as too close to Beijing.

Several members of the Legislative Council left the room before Leung spoke Wednesday, or were ejected during it because of their opposition to his leadership. Protesters also demonstrated outside the government building.

During his speech, he said his government will have the courage to make tough decisions and, trying to smooth over some of the recent turmoil, he called on residents to unite and support the government's land and housing initiatives.

Leung said urban development has taken a "disturbing turn" in recent years, and that wrangling over land use often leads to housing shortages and slow development.

The housing shortage in the city of seven million people means sky-high rent and property prices, and Leung said tens of thousands of residents are being forced to live in cramped quarters that give rise to health and safety concerns.

"Their plight is casting a dark shadow on our thriving city," Leung said in his speech.

He announced a number of initiatives to address the housing problems that include a target of 100,000 new public housing units in the next five years, and said construction projects already underway would be expedited. The government will even look to go underground and develop rock caverns to increase land supply for housing.

The government also plans to rezone a number of areas so they can be used for housing and will consider lifting moratoriums on development in certain districts. Leung said the proposals will help address the future needs of Hong Kong's youth.

"It is all too easy for the government to sidestep the problem, but it is today's young people who will have to bear the adverse consequences in future," he said in his address.

Poverty a 'real problem'

Leung said poverty in Hong Kong must be recognized as a "real problem," and that public resources must be devoted to those who cannot provide for themselves. He added, however, that "a welfare policy underpinned by heavy taxation is not a viable option."

The Commission on Poverty is working on poverty alleviation measures, and introducing a poverty line as a benchmark is one of its key initiatives. Leung said creating a poverty line for the first time in Hong Kong will help quantify the low-income population, focus policy initiatives and measure whether efforts are effective.

On the environment file, Hong Kong's chief executive said the government would pursue measures to "turn Hong Kong into a healthy, low-carbon and resource-saving metropolis that is in harmony with nature."

Leung said the government is combatting air pollution, a major concern in Hong Kong. It intends, for example, to spend $1.2 billion Cdn in subsidies to phase out commercial diesel vehicles and is also promoting the use of electric vehicles. Bus routes in Hong Kong will also be reviewed in an effort to ensure they are efficient and that buses aren't unnecessarily contributing to poor air quality.

Other highlights from the speech:

  • The government will consider providing free kindergarten.
  • The Health Department will add 150 acute-care beds in the coming year and will work on developing the Chinese medicine industry.
  • The "zero delivery quota" policy will be maintained to prevent pregnant mainland Chinese women from going to Hong Kong to have their babies (allowing the children to claim permanent residency that comes with benefits).
  • The government will not pursue consultations on an anti-discrimination law aimed at protecting people of various sexual orientations.

Leung said in a news conference after his address that he fully expects opposition to some of his policies, but that the government can't wait for 100 per cent consensus and must push ahead.

Hong Kong's chief secretary for administration, Carrie Lam, called the policy address a "comprehensive blueprint" that tackles longstanding problems, and called on the public to support it during a news conference.