The right balance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


If you read some media reports last week, you might think that, as chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, I colluded with the government and arranged that the board would vote to redevelop the west wing of the old government offices in Central. This is not really what happened, and I would like to set the record straight.

I would also like to tell readers who care about Government Hill how they can still influence the decision-making. That's right: things are still not finalised.

Being advisory, the board does not decide the fate of sites. What we do is grade them. We are working through a list of about 1,400 antiquities, and so far we have graded about 1,200.

Our procedure begins with a panel of experts, who are separate from the board. These experts make a recommended grading from one, for the most important sites, to three, for those that are less important but still worthy of a grading. My personal rule of thumb is that a one means a site should definitely be preserved, while a two should, ideally, at least have some features preserved.

Usually, the board follows the experts' advice. On some fairly rare occasions, board members have differing opinions and, when that happens, we take a vote. Either way, the next step is a one-month period to allow public feedback. This is the stage we are at with the west wing. Only after that do we finalise the grading.

The voting procedures follow set rules. The previous time I cast a vote, heritage activists attending the meeting applauded; this time, they disliked the outcome. That is fair enough, but they cannot say we did not follow the correct voting procedures. We did. (If anyone wants the full boring details, I would be happy to provide them.)

Some critics have been saying that I did a deal with the government. If there was any collusion, it was more the other way round. I believe my own urging helped to convince Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor not to sell the site to the private sector.

This is a major cause of the broader public dissatisfaction with the handling of Government Hill, and indeed other decisions over land use generally. I asked Ms Lam to announce this decision before the board's meeting because I felt that members needed to know about it in order to make an informed vote.

I vote only if board members are equally divided, as they were - between grades one and two - with the west wing. Our experts originally gave the west wing a grade three assessment, so the grade two that I subsequently voted for was an upgrade. I suspect the government would have wanted the outcome to be a grade three at most.

I voted for grade two because, to my mind, that is the appropriate level for the building in terms of architectural and other value.

Personally, I would be very happy to see features or parts of the structure preserved, but I do not see it as 'untouchable' grade one. (These grades have no legal power, but they can put pressure on site owners - even private ones.)

The board fast-tracked Government Hill in response to urgent requests from the public and concern groups. In the background, of course, there are issues like governmentdeveloper links and the environmental quality of Central. My hunch is that activists demanding that the west wing be preserved are latching on to one building's architecture as a sort of weapon in a far bigger struggle.

What they really want to protect is a unique, quiet, partly green area without crowds, traffic and tourist shops.

They are fighting a planning mindset that puts 'development' ahead of our quality of life. I certainly do not blame them for that - I too believe this administration should have given quality of life far greater priority.

As with so many other cases of fast-evolving public opinion, the government struggles to keep up. The concessions it has made over the years on Government Hill are major and make the case for moving to the Tamar site in Admiralty look much weaker.

Of course this administration ends in just a few days. The next one will have different priorities, and I hope we will see more stress on Hong Kong people's quality of life in planning.

After resigning from the Antiquities Advisory Board, my fellow members unanimously urged me to at least serve out the rest of my term - up to the end of this year. I've agreed to do so and will abstain from voting on the Government Hill grading.

I would ask the community to do two things. First, if you want to influence the final decision on the west wing, send supporting evidence (not just opinions) to the board in the next three weeks. Second, the outcome will be close; please respect the 22 hard-working board members' final decision.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils