New heritage rules to plug loopholes and protect sites

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 12:00am

A new system to protect Hong Kong's heritage sites and buildings is being formulated and may be ready by next year, government officials disclosed yesterday.

Under pressure from Central and Western District Council members, heritage protection officials admitted the current system had loopholes and weaknesses that would be addressed.

The new system will involve a comprehensive survey of all possible historical sites and buildings across Hong Kong, land exchanges for property owners, and subsidised maintenance and repairs.

Assistant Director of Leisure and Cultural Services Tony Ma Kai-loong and Home Affairs Bureau chief curator Susanna Siu Kai-kuen made the disclosure at an emergency council meeting to address the planned destruction of Kom Tong Hall in Mid-Levels by its owner, the Mormon Church.

Elements of the proposed changes already exist under the current system, but Ms Siu said officials would take a more proactive approach to reach out to owners, possibly even before there are plans to alter or raze a building. Details of the new system will be disclosed during a public consultation next year.

The officials yesterday came under fire for failing to alert council members about the Kom Tong Hall plan, even though they knew about it as early as July 30.

Central and Western District Council members said they learned of the plan about 10 days ago when scaffolding was erected. The hall was built in 1914 and has been classified as a grade II historical building on a scale of three.

The council and district residents have launched a campaign to stop the Church destroying Kom Tong Hall, on Castle Road, and the government is negotiating with the Church for a compromise.

'The Home Affairs Bureau is considering changes in law and policy to better protect heritage buildings,' Mr Ma said.

Different types of compensation for owners, including land exchanges, are being considered, Ms Siu added.

Speaking at the meeting, Mr Ma said it was the government's goal to preserve Kom Tong Hall, but possible offers, including a land exchange with the Mormon Church, could not be tabled because Church officials have refused to disclose its redevelopment plan. The house is currently used for administration and prayer services.

'A number of offers are being considered, but we must know first what the Church wants to do with the site so we could table an offer that would match their needs,' Mr Ma said.

The Church said it would not comment until an agreement is reached with the government.

Mr Ma said short of declaring Kom Tong Hall a historical monument, the government could not legally stop its redevelopment. However, such government declarations are almost never made without the owner's consent.

Mr Ma admitted that the three-grade classification system had no legal power, but said the new system should address some of the current weaknesses.

District council member Yeung Wai-foon said it was common for property owners to refuse to disclose redevelopment plans that might expose them to rezoning applications or unwanted publicity.