Beware market mayhem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 1998, 12:00am

We've seen it all before. A stubborn tenant occupies land for many years, usually at low rent. The tides of progress, meanwhile, have swept in, making the property incredibly valuable. When the owner wants his property back so he can develop it or use it for his own purposes, the sitting squatter screams.

'Unfair, exploitation, discrimination,' squeals the person squatting on land. Then comes the magic word: 'Compensation!' Basically, that's what's happening at Central Market. What's unusual about this land feud is that the occupant is the Urban Services Department and the squeals are coming from the 50 highly vocal Urban Councillors.

The Government, in the form of Bowen Leung Po-wing, Secretary of Environment, Planning and Land, has written to the council telling them to get out by May next year.

No way, the council wails. They say they need at least a decade to get ready, although it was obvious 12 years ago that the Government wanted back that vastly valuable 4,150 square metre plot.

The latest demand for return of the land to its rightful owner - the Government - comes after a few hare-brained Urbco schemes that caused wary mirth. Some worthy councillors thought it a smashing notion to rip down the market and redevelop it as a swimming pool.

The logic of this - a swimming pool, which could be used at the most by a few thousand people, surrounded by some of the world's most pricey skyscrapers - is hard to fathom, until you realise that a significant number of councillors are highly dependent on votes from adjacent Western District to keep their seats, which pay them a handsome $50,470 per month.

So, to hell with the public interest and let's cater to the lowest number of people with the most strategic voting block. Wonderful.

To its credit, the Government has, for once, stood firm. It intends fully to exercise its rights and take back the land.

Like any politicians, the 50 inhabitants of the Urban Council chambers are desperate to keep their hands on any piece of infrastructure.

This applies even when the council is patently unable to run it, as witnessed by the Hong Kong Stadium debacle.

Sadly, I suspect a replay will soon be witnessed with a fiasco over the new Central Library in Causeway Bay. This ridiculously titled structure is miles from Central, indicating again that councillors can't even name things, let alone run them.

Councillors frantic to retain control have been rebuffed by their lawyers, who say they have no legal right to thwart the Government. Now the council wants to employ top senior counsel - another waste of public funds.

They are also shaping up for an unseemly public scrap, which will only drag the Urban Council even further down in public opinion, if that is possible.

Back in 1939 when Central Market was built, the district was crammed with tenements, every building packed with people. None had fridges and people had to buy fresh food daily.

Times changed. Local people increasingly moved out and yuppie stockbrokers moved in. Live frogs and squirming eels were not so pressingly in demand. The resident population served by the market tumbled.

So the idea was floated years ago to dispense with the unnecessary marketplace and open a new one somewhere in the vicinity of Hollywood Road. Just wait for the next round of squeals, which will come from the ritzy antique shops selling legacies from China's past. They won't want live chickens squawking and having their heads cut off next to their Ming dynasty vases.

There are now 116 stalls in Central Market selling fruit, fowls, fish, meat and vegetables. Under agreements, the Urban Council must find somewhere else for the small merchants to set up business. There are another 85 stalls used for storage or by the owners of nearby shops. These have no protection in their leases.

Now arises the possibility that no offer of compensation or help to move be made to those who sell perishable foods. Urbco should simply do nothing, this argument goes, and, when the anguished protests start, the council will be smugly able to point the finger of blame at the Government.

This is an underhand and demeaning trick, which would use decent hard-working people as pawns in a political confidence game.

The Government should not let councillors get away with this shabby tactic. Mr Leung, who is a talented and highly experienced civil servant, should go to Central Market, call a public meeting of stallholders and explain to them precisely why the market has to close and how they can be moved to a new business environment. One site he has in mind is the old police staff quarters in Hollywood Road, which would provide sites for a significantly increased 250 stalls.

By refusing to accept this proposal, and by raising a series of pointless objections and childish suggestions, some Urban Councillors are trying to torpedo any move from the market.

The Government says that land is needed for a major new bus terminal for 17 routes which now drop off people on the jam-packed streets of Central. Obviously, this would be a major traffic improvement. Above the terminal, there would be a large commercial building, like the modern terminals in Admiralty and Ma On Shan, to name but two.

It gives an indication of the common sense of some councillors that they argue in favour of a new bus terminus on the reclamation across Connaught Road. This notion means tens of thousands of people would have to trek daily to get to and from work.

It's just one of the last-gasp efforts of Urbco politicians who are fanatical about keeping Central Market within their empire.

Bowen Leung and the Government must not back down on their decision to hurl Urban Services out of this site. Any antics by councillors who try to use dispossessed hawkers to stir up trouble must be shown for what it is - the unscrupulous actions of a bunch of local government politicians who want to keep power in their own hands.