Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hawker centres of the future

Future hawker centres: Keeping food cheap
Panel recommends that not-for-profit operators run centres
By Huang Lijie, The Straits Times, 28 Feb 2012

IN A move to keep hawker food prices affordable, a public panel has called on hawker centres of the future to be run and priced in a new way.

Instead of the Government tendering out stalls as is mostly the case now, a not-for-profit operator such as a social enterprise or cooperative should be in charge of running the centre.



It would have some autonomy to decide matters like tenant mix and use of space, but would defer to broad terms set out by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which will fund and own the centres, and regulate the licensing of stalls.

This hawker centre social enterprise would pre-determine the rental rates of the stalls, and invite 'operators with credentials' to run them.

Rentals would be lower than those usually offered by food courts and coffee shops, and hawkers could be made to offer at least one 'value meal' which would be cheaper than meals sold at nearby eateries.

To prevent profiteering by stallholders who do not intend to operate the stalls themselves, full-day sub-letting could be disallowed.

If hawkers do not wish to operate their stalls, they should return them, said the panel, which released its recommendations yesterday.

The current practice of allowing stallholders who enjoy subsidised rents to 'assign' their stalls to another hawker should also be abolished, it said.

Under this practice, the new stall owner often privately pays a large handover fee to the original stallholder, so he can take over a stall with a coveted location and enjoy a rental rate that is slightly higher than the subsidised rate, but still lower than market value.

An exception, however, is proposed in cases where hawkers selling traditional or heritage foods wish to pass the stall on to immediate family members.

This vision of hawker centres forms part of preliminary recommendations by the 18-member panel set up by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan in November last year.

It was asked to advise the Government on its project to build new hawker centres, and is headed by entrepreneur Elim Chew, founder of fashion retailer 77th Street.

At a press conference at the Ulu Pandan Community Club, Ms Chew said the social enterprise's role would be to 'look into details and work with each individual when they start the stall, to ensure that they keep food prices affordable'.

The panel also called for new hawker centres to support marginalised communities such as the mentally disabled, and to provide community spaces where everything from tuition to busking can be held.

Hawker centres could even act as common spaces where social norms like graciousness are formed and reinforced.

Last year, the Government announced that it would be building 10 new hawker centres, after a hiatus of 26 years. They will be sited in housing estates that lack cooked food stalls.

The first of these will be at the junction of Bukit Panjang Road and Pending Road, and will include a wet market. Construction will begin this year and it is expected to be ready within three years.

Hawker food prices have been creeping up and hawkers say high rentals due to profiteering by stallholders is one reason.

On the proposed model, Ms Teo Mee Hong, executive director of the Social Enterprise Association and a member of the panel, said: 'It is going to be an extension of what the Government does and yet it seeks efficiency and involvement from the ground.'

To be viable, the social enterprise would need to seek revenue, which it would do from other channels, such as leasing space for advertising and events, she said. But being non-profit, 'all the profits are locked in' and used to benefit the hawkers in various forms, such as further rental support or upgrading of skills.










Keeping hawker food cheap and good
Editorial, The Straits Times, 29 Feb 2012

HAWKER meals are by definition inexpensive eats, preferably taken in a setting that is agreeable. This is not asking a lot. But in spite of tight regulatory management through the National Environment Agency (NEA), with select input from the Housing Board, customers have noticed steadily creeping meal prices at hawker centres. Access to affordable meals is a social necessity, helping mitigate the effects of inflation. More particular eaters also complain about indifferent hygiene standards in food handling and the unkempt state of premises, with scraps and litter everywhere. These are key factors addressed by Ms Elim Chew's public consultation panel advising the Government on new-generation hawker centres. The panel's work is almost done, although it has called for further feedback from the public. It is now necessary to agree on getting the operating mechanisms right, as the government decision to resume building centres after a long break is an indication that a social need for such centres remains.

Some might wonder about the wisdom of loading too many social objectives onto hawker centres. Apart from serving good and cheap food, the panel also wants these centres to be promoters of social good, from supporting the less privileged and the marginalised to boosting social graciousness. That is all well and good, but it is important too to stay focused on what is critical. In this regard, the panel is to be commended for getting to the heart of the affordability issue in advocating a strict rent model, with a not-for-profit enterprise recommended to manage centres so as to cut out middlemen. The proposal will differ from the current method of the NEA having management control and putting stalls out to tender. The panel will eliminate absentee lease-holders by banning sub-letting or 'assigning' of lots to actual food vendors, usually at an exorbitant premium. Food prices go up as a result, and will go on rising as rent-seekers will raise their take whenever business is thriving. This newspaper suggests going further. It should be made a lease condition that only owner-operators may bid for space, with verification procedures in place to prevent circumvention.

The cleanliness factor is just as important to achieve a qualitative upgrade in the social habit of eating out. Waste disposal is at present insalubrious, and the provision of wash basins beside clean toilets must be a feature of new designs. The cooked-food business has to be serious about wanting to rise beyond its street-side origins.

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