Urban planning

Fostering a culture of transparency

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 12:00am

The development of a landmark cultural hub on the prime harbour-side site in West Kowloon is one that, it might be thought, would require the highest levels of public scrutiny.

We need only consider the vast scale of the project and its importance to our city to appreciate the public interest involved. This is the last large piece of land by the harbour to be developed. The aim is to turn it into a magnificent cultural icon. And it is all to be made the responsibility of a single developer.

So the government's decision to restrict the ability of the Town Planning Board to intervene is a matter of concern. The government achieved its aim through a remarkably simple device. The whole 40-hectare site has been zoned under the catch-all category 'other specified uses'. This was apparently proposed by the board. But most of the many different types of work to be carried out have then been listed in a column that exempts them from the board's scrutiny. These include residential blocks, hotels, commercial complexes and museums. The effect will be to give the developer who ultimately wins the tender virtually a free hand in deciding which bits to put where.

The board is to consider objections to these arrangements from five developers, and it will then vote on a final plan. If this is approved, that will be the end of the board's involvement. Changes could later be made without it being involved.

The developer, it seems, will be spared the bother of many troublesome and time-consuming applications. This manoeuvre will, no doubt, make the project all the more attractive to the developers who intend to bid for it, speeding up the construction process and giving the winner the greatest flexibility in deciding how to go about it.

Regrettably, it will also make entire process less transparent and remove some of the usual avenues for public participation and scrutiny. It creates the impression that the government might be lining up a sweetheart deal with a favoured developer.

The decision to give the project to a single consortium was itself controversial. And the requirements bidders must meet are so strict they effectively exclude all but the biggest companies. Letting the successful developer largely avoid board scrutiny fits the pattern. It is all beginning to threaten the project's credibility.

The board has been much maligned of late, mainly because of its approval of controversial reclamation projects. This statutory body is perceived to be sympathetic to the government's wishes, which is not surprising given that its chairman and vice-chairman are both officials. The procedures it uses are outdated and in need of reform to make it less secretive - and more accountable to the public.

However, the board does perform an important public function in scrutinising development proposals and exercising a measure of control over town planning. Some of our biggest companies have, in recent times, seen their plans rejected by the board. As well as officials, its members include academics, business people and environmentalists. It should have a key role to play in monitoring the plans for West Kowloon.

Even the Cyberport contract, which was awarded without going through the usual tendering procedures, was largely subjected to the board's scrutiny.

Giving the private sector full responsibility for the West Kowloon project is an ambitious and admirable attempt to save public money. But giving it to a single developer means that company will enjoy a great deal of power. The tendering process must be fair and transparent - and there should be no preferential treatment for the successful company.

This is a project in which the Town Planning Board must be fully engaged.