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Government would 'think very carefully' before recentralising HDB township maintenance: Sim Ann

Government would 'think very carefully' before recentralising HDB township maintenance: Sim Ann
File image of an HDB estate. (Photo: CNA/Cheryl Lin)

SINGAPORE: The Government would “think very carefully” before recentralising township maintenance, as decentralisation is key in the current town council (TC) model, said Senior Minister of State for National Development Sim Ann on Monday (May 9).

Her comments came in response to an adjournment motion by MP Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok), who urged authorities to relook the current model of estate management through TCs.

Instead, he suggested recentralising resources with the Housing & Development Board (HDB) and having it handle maintenance services as it did in the past.

Noting that “devolution is at the heart of the town council concept”, Ms Sim said the model also represents an “important partnership” between elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and residents in co-creating their living environment.

“An effective town council can build a town into a distinctive, cohesive, and vibrant community, with a unique identity endearing to its residents.”

Nevertheless, she said Mr Murali had provided “helpful reminders” about other considerations, such as having to keep maintenance costs in mind when designing new HDB towns – one among the points he raised in his motion.

RELOOKING THE TOWN COUNCIL MODEL

In his speech, Mr Murali noted that in Singapore’s earlier days, HDB and its predecessor, Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), built flats and managed the common property within estates.

Since 1989, the responsibility to manage, maintain and improve these elements has come under the respective town councils.

The bulk of funding for this comes from service & conservancy charges (S&CC) that residents pay. There are also Government grants.

Though the TC model has worked “reasonably well”, Mr Murali pointed out several issues.

That includes how maintenance costs for newer Build-to-Order (BTO) developments are “significantly higher” than for older estates, because of extra features they have.

For instance, “verdant green gardens” would require specialist contractors, rather than general landscaping ones, leading to cost increases.

He added that town councils do not enjoy the same economies of scale that HDB would have due to its size.

“I am not making an argument to trade off aesthetics for costs – all I am asking for is a deeper reflection on the implication of each decision at the construction and design stage.”

He added that in the past, HDB were better able to factor in maintenance costs when developing blocks, as it had to “balance its books”.

“Thirty years later, it seems to me there are warning signs that either this ability may have hollowed out, or that it is not foremost on the minds of the officers, given that they have no incentive to look at maintenance – only development.”

ISSUE OF EQUITY

A second issue arises from how maintenance costs differ between estates, but S&CC are put in a common pool and fixed based on flat type, Mr Murali said.

Currently, maintenance costs are also rising, but revenue is generally flat – meaning S&CC charges may need to be hiked, creating the issue of equity, he noted.

Separately, Mr Murali recounted an instance where HDB had asked the town councils to use funding from the Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC), for works which were meant only to address problems associated with BTO design features.

The problem is that the bulk of this funding comes from S&CC that all residents pay, he said.

Thirdly, Mr Murali noted that S&CC should only be used for maintenance, rather than to “replace or extend the life” of infrastructure. Instead, the Government should fund the costs of such works, he said. 

HIGH TURNOVER AMONG OFFICERS

As a final point, Mr Murali noted a “relatively high turnover” among councils’ resident-facing property officers – who form the “backbone” of all TCs.

Common grouses include tough work conditions and a lack of career prospects within the organisation.

Before town councils were formed, HDB would have been the employer – and a much bigger organisation would have allowed for more upgrading and career progression, Mr Murali noted.

“If we are serious about wanting to ensure a reasonable standard of maintenance in our public housing estates, the human resource management issue must be tackled decisively.”

GOVERNMENT SUPPORTS TC FUNDING

In response, Ms Sim said the TC model was meant to give elected MPs autonomy to run their own towns, while also serving as a “testing ground” for them to win residents’ trust.

As a role with custodial and financial responsibilies, she described it as a “uniquely Singapore approach to governance”.

She noted that the Government has supported town councils, providing about S$1.2 billion dollars in funding to them over the last five years.

For FY2020, it provided about S$146 million in S&CC operating grants, and some S$132 million worth of S&CC rebates to residents. This compares against a total S&CC collection of S$770 million for that year, Ms Sim noted.

She added that authorities provide additional funding for major infrastructural items.

DESIGNING NEW BTO ESTATES

On Mr Murali’s concerns about maintenance costs of newer estates, Ms Sim said “sustainability and maintainability” are considered when HDB designs new BTO projects.

But other factors are considered too. “Otherwise, we would end up with cookie-cutter precincts that cannot reflect the aspirations of homeowners, or the changing demands of urban living.”

She said the key is to ensure “good feedback loops” between HDB and TCs during design and development, so that tweaks can be made to address potential maintenance issues. 

Nevertheless, she said: “We value the Member’s feedback and will review our processes to ensure that ease of maintenance is given due priority.”

COST INCREASES MUST BE ACCOMMODATED BY ALL

On funding cyclical maintenance, Ms Sim noted that the Government already co-funds such infrastructural works, by channeling grants to funds such as the Sinking Fund and Lift Replacement Fund.

Ms Sim also acknowledged the inflationary pressures on TCs, but said these have affected all sectors, including the Government.

“Hence, the solution cannot simply be for the Government to take over estate management, or to fully fund cost increases. Ultimately, any long-term increases in costs will have to be accommodated by all of us.”

But she added that the National Development Ministry will consider further measures if needed to cushion the impact of rising costs on residents.

As for the human resource issue, Ms Sim said the Government has been providing regular training for officers and establishing clear progression pathways, as part of broader efforts to uplift the facilities management sector.

Concluding her speech, Ms Sim said Mr Murali provided "helpful reminders", such as to focus on maintenance costs when designing HDB towns, and to track how the costs of maintening HDB estates should be managed.

She added: “We are committed to doing both.”

Source: CNA/cl(rw)

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