West wing project should benefit people, not developer

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am


Chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board Bernard Chan resigned on Monday amid accusations that he colluded with officials over the heritage grading of Government Hill.

Critics said he had intentionally used his deciding vote to list the former government headquarters as a grade two building to make way for its demolition and the construction of a 32-storey office tower. A grade two building is not usually protected from demolition.

The board's voting result came only after Development Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced that the government would redevelop the site using the 'build, operate, transfer' model so that the ownership remains with the government.

The redevelopment of the west wing of the central government offices has long been under the spotlight, with conservationists campaigning for its protection. Before the vote, the general perception was that the government would spare the west wing from the wrecking ball.

Lam's high-profile announcement last week was an overt way to put pressure on the heritage board and seek to influence the voting process.

I find it baffling that the board listed the other two buildings of the complex as grade one but the west wing only as grade two despite the fact that they belong together as a group.

During the voting process, three members voted to list the west wing as grade three while eight each voted for grade one and two. So when Chan cast his deciding vote and listed the building as grade two, he effectively cleared the way for the government to demolish the building.

Chan failed to act in accordance with common voting practice. Besides the eight votes each for the listing of grades one and two, there were three votes that supported a grade three listing. A proper way to handle the matter would be to do away with the grade three option and restart the voting process.

The government's decision shocked local conservationists and the public and they have decided to seek a judicial review in a bid to overturn the board's decision.

Furthermore, before the heritage board voted, Chan, accompanied by Lam, viewed a model and artist's impressions of the future development plan for the west wing. So, it's not unreasonable for others to think Chan's decision was heavily influenced by the government. As a result, Chan has ruined the reputation and the independence of the heritage board he headed.

This whole thing is an unambiguous case of transferring benefits to private developers. It's clear Leung Chun-ying has no intention of fighting greedy developers and bringing down property prices, as he proclaimed in his election campaign.

The cost of building a 32-storey commercial tower is estimated at around HK$3billion. The total floor area will be some 300,000 square feet. So, with the current market price of at least HK$100 per square foot for Grade A office space in Central, the rental income could be up to HK$360million per year.

Under the 'build, operate, transfer' agreement, the developer could reap a colossal profit over a 30-year period. By handing over the site and its development to private developers, the government is in effect giving away money that could have come to the public coffers.

Chan has acted responsibly by resigning, but the matter remains unresolved. The public must keep up the pressure and press ahead with a judicial review.

The 'build, operate, transfer' model is a blatant way to transfer benefits to private developers. It shows a change of administration will make no difference when it comes to handing over advantages. Favouritism still exists; the only difference is to whom the benefits go.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk