A recent spate of problems in Housing Board towns has revived the old question of who should be responsible for running them
When a lift malfunctions or a slab of plaster falls off the side of a Housing Board block, the relevant town council - not the HDB - must pick up the pieces.
Town councils are officially responsible for maintaining the common spaces of HDB estates.
But a valid question that has been raised in both coffee shops and Parliament is whether the HDB might bear some responsibility for such incidents as well.
Consider three incidents in the last quarter of 2016, in which facade elements fell from HDB blocks: a sunshade in Tampines, a piece of facade in Circuit Road and a slab of plaster in Hougang.
The latter two were found to have involved "wear and tear" and deterioration due to the weather - circumstances which good maintenance could presumably have prevented. In contrast, the Tampines sunshade was found to have no reinforcement bars on the side that fell.
This is an issue that would have arisen during construction, for which the town council surely cannot be held responsible.
With lifts, the picture is similar.
At the outset, the HDB is responsible for procuring lift suppliers for new projects. Under the Lift Upgrading Programme, it is also the HDB which decides on the lift supplier.
But responsibility for maintaining these lifts falls on the town council.
"The way it works, the town council will only take over. We are not involved in the selection of lifts," says Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council chairman Zainal Sapari.
In other words, town councils have to work within the context of decisions made earlier by the HDB.
This might not be ideal, as seen in a Parliamentary question raised last November by Ms Sun Xueling, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.
She asked about situations "where a lift contractor has systematically shown an inability to rectify lift faults and the town council is stuck with the lift contractor as the sole proprietor of its technology".
Since becoming an MP in 2015, Ms Sun has been working to address lift issues in her Punggol West ward, such as lift doors repeatedly opening and closing.
The contractor, Sigma, has been banned from tendering for new HDB projects since October 2015. But her town council is hardly the only one "stuck" with a lift contractor it did not choose.
WHO SHOULD BE IN CHARGE?
One call that surfaces periodically is for the HDB to take back responsibility for estate maintenance, as was the case before town councils were created in 1989.
It came up in 2013, when then National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced a review of the Town Councils Act. A poll by The Straits Times in May 2013 found 41 out of 50 people wanted the HDB to resume responsibility for managing towns. When the review was finally completed last year, the same call arose during a public consultation.
The consultation was on proposed changes to clarify the powers of town councils vis-a-vis government agencies, give the Ministry of National Development (MND) more oversight, improve governance and strengthen financial management. Yet some members of the public went beyond that scope, calling for the model to change altogether. Some suggested merging town councils with HDB branches. Others simply wanted "HDB, MND or the Government" to take back the functions of the town councils.
But the Government has consistently rejected such calls.
In 2013, Mr Khaw stressed the inherently political nature of town councils, which requires them to be responsible for maintenance.
He reminded Parliament why town councils were set up in the first place. Before 1989, common areas were maintained by the HDB.
"However, Parliament decided to give MPs more authority and responsibility over the HDB estates in their constituencies, in order to strengthen the nexus between the residents and their elected MPs," said Mr Khaw.
"We should not return to a situation where HDB administers estates all over Singapore, and MPs have no authority or responsibility over what is done or how well things work," he added.
Speaking to The Straits Times, former Ang Mo Kio Town Council chairman and retired MP Inderjit Singh suggested a middle ground.
"The town council can take care of estate cleanliness and so on," he said. But for issues related to the physical infrastructure itself - such as lifts and facades - the HDB should remain responsible.
The Government does not seem keen on changing the model. Last year, in response to feedback on the town council review, the MND argued that the current model "has generally served Singapore and the original policy intent of town councils well", and indicated no intention of changing it.
The current system also arguably gives residents more ownership of their surroundings. With accountability resting at the local rather than national level, residents can see the direct impact of the service and conservancy charges they pay, for instance.
And it may well be that residents themselves appreciate being able to go directly to their MP, instead of having to deal with a massive government agency.
Many now post on their MPs' Facebook pages about municipal issues. MPs, for their part, can update constituents directly - as Ms Sun has been doing on the lift issue, on Facebook - in a way that a large body like the HDB might not be able to.
GIVE TOWN COUNCILS MORE SAY?
Given that responsibility for maintenance seems unlikely to return to the HDB, what else could be done to address this tension between the board having initial responsibility and the town council taking over?
"The issue is that the town council has a limited decision in the major works," noted Mr Singh.
So if the HDB is not going to be responsible in the long term, then the converse should happen: Town councils should be involved from the start. "There should be more leeway for town councils to make decisions on some of these major issues." For example, in lift upgrading, they could be given a choice of lift suppliers.
Otherwise, the situation is such that the HDB makes decisions yet the town council becomes responsible, he added. "That's not fair to the town council."
Mr Zainal suggests that the HDB pay greater attention to the track record of lift suppliers when choosing one, and tap on performance data from the town councils.
To be fair, the HDB's two-stage lift procurement process does look at the quality and reliability of lift contractors. First, contractors must meet minimum criteria, including on the performance and track record of the proposed brand of lift.
Second, proposals are assessed by a "Price-Quality Method" which looks at factors including the lift contractor's performance, safety performance and lift performance.
The ease of future maintenance is also taken into account. For example, HDB requires lift cars to be made of stainless steel, which is less susceptible to corrosion compared to galvanised steel.
But in the light of recent lift incidents, perhaps the selection process could be weighted further in favour of quality over price, or pay even more attention to performance.
NO SIMPLE PANACEA
Ultimately, what residents care about are outcomes.
Although changing the current model seems to be a popular option, it may not be the best way to address the problems that have arisen. Instead, it may be more useful to look at the root causes of each incident.
Some may be tied to maintenance, others to earlier stages such as construction or choice of supplier.
After all, there is no guarantee that if the HDB were responsible for maintenance, all problems would cease. There were lift accidents well before the setting up of town councils in the 1980s, including a fatal one in 1972.
And across the rest of Singapore, developers and builders do not have to maintain the projects they create.
This separation of initial and maintenance responsibility is the norm for condominiums, where the Management Corporation Strata Title of each project oversees maintenance, although some would argue that the HDB - as the developer of public housing - should maintain a greater level of responsibility throughout.
Nevertheless, instead of calling for the HDB to take back responsibility, perhaps we should ask specific questions:
Should facade maintenance requirements be tightened?
Are there lapses in the building inspection regime that could lead to a sunshade being built without reinforcement bars?
In choosing lift suppliers, does the HDB give enough weight to past performance and track record?
Taking each incident on its own terms instead of seeking a broad-based panacea might be a better way to ensure good outcomes for residents.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'HDB, town councils and who best to run estates'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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