Don't let bureaucrats ruin the
SCMP December 18, 2002
The very name and raison d'etre of Hong Kong is its harbour. Should
it not, therefore, be at the very heart of its heritage, its identity?
It would be nice to think that in the post-colonial era, Hong Kong's
natural heritage would be at the top of a local-pride agenda. But it
seems not. Instead of heritage, we have heritage museums.
The approval given to the latest harbour destruction project - the Wan
Chai reclamation - indicates the government remains in the grip of a
concrete fetish, beholden to a combination of planning bureaucrats and
property developers. A harbour that should be the equal of Sydney's
or San Francisco's as a tourist attraction in its own right, and a hub
of commerce and recreation, is to be further diminished in size and
appeal. My personal interest in the issue stems from my recreational
use of the harbour as a member of the Yacht Club in Causeway Bay. I
also sail in Sydney harbour.
Instead of maximising the attractions of the foreshore - as even London
has done with its none-too-beautiful river Thames the planners are filling
the harbour with more roads, more commercial buildings and some artificial
parks. No doubt they will be festooned with ribbons of concrete pathways
and admonitions to keep off the grass.
The latest reclamation proposals from the government are actually illegal
by any reasonable interpretation of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance
enacted in 1997. This enlightened piece of legislation began life as
a private member's bill and was designed by legislators to put a stop
to all but the most essential reclamation work.
The ordinance opposes reclamation on principle and sets out strict
tests to determine whether development is for the public benefit, is
essential, or if there is a reasonable alternative.
But an authoritarian bureaucracy clearly sees no need to obey the law.
The Town Planning Board, a collection of government appointees presided
over by the director of planning, is pushing ahead with a plan to fill
in 50 hectares of the Wan Chai waterfront.
The plan approved by the secretive and unaccountable Town Planning
Board provides for yet another above-ground road, commercial buildings,
another convention centre and a new island designated as a ''harbour
The Protection of the Harbour Ordinance was passed at a time when land
prices were at their peak and the government relied very heavily on
land revenue. With prices down and the government holding land off the
market to protect its developer cronies, there is now even less justification
for filling in the harbour than there was then.
The future use of the huge (340 hectare) West Kowloon reclamation remains
partly unresolved. Nearly five years after the closure of Kai Tak airport,
no plans for the site have been finalised, not a square centimetre of
more than 200 hectares of harbour-side land has been sold. Yet the government
tells us we need more reclamation. Indeed, it proposes to fill in another
130 hectares of Kowloon Bay.
To make matters even worse, the government is proposing another exhibition
and convention centre on the Wan Chai waterfront while it is subsidising
most of the cost of yet another convention centre at the new airport.
How much more public money is to be poured down the throats of builders
and untransparent, quasi-official entities?
The excuse of land shortage for offices will not wash. Midtown Manhattan
has a land shortage at least as acute as Hong Kong island's. Is it selling
off Central Park? Or Paris the Bois de Boulogne? Or Tokyo Hibiya Park?
Doubtless if those cities had the same unaccountable leaders as we have,
those parks would be shrinking fast.
Most of the reclamation is justified on the grounds of housing demand.
Yet there are huge tracts of undeveloped land in Lantau and the New
Territories. The New Territories actually needs medium-density housing
to replace its junkyards and container parks.
The eastern end of the harbour - east of Hunghom - could still be saved
for recreational use and, like Sydney, combine commercial and recreational
But first, the public must win a battle with its own government. Elsewhere,
governments and laws protect the environment and the public interest
from private despoilers. In this case, the government is the enemy of
the public good and deems itself above the law.
Philip Bowring (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Hong Kong-based journalist
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