Don't let bureaucrats ruin the harbour

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 park''.

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 uses.

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 ( is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator




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