Fact: your harbour needs you

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 April, 2004, 12:00am

Over recent months, the government has sought to justify Phase III of the Central reclamation plan by embarking on a publicity campaign seldom seen in Hong Kong. It has spent $780,000 of public funds and distributed 300,000 colour pamphlets to convince the public that it is acting in accordance with the spirit of the rule of law and in the public interest.

It is therefore necessary to bring the following hard truths to the public's attention. These statements of fact are beyond dispute, no matter what arguments the government may put forward. The public should examine them objectively and judge for themselves whether the government is conducting itself properly, reasonably, honourably and in the public interest. Our Society for Protection of the Harbour has certainly tried our best to do so.

Fact one. The Central reclamation plan was based on the wrong interpretation of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance. The government misinformed the public on the correct meaning of the Ordinance and, thereby, misled the whole community into accepting the plan.

Fact two. The Court of Final Appeal ruled that its judgment applied to all reclamation plans and referred the Wan Chai scheme to the Town Planning Board for review with public participation, but the government has refused to refer the Central reclamation scheme to the board for review. The result is that neither the board, the Legislative Council nor the public has ever been given the opportunity to review the Central plan based on the correct legal interpretation and a proper understanding of the law.

Fact three. The government seeks to justify the Central reclamation for building the Central-Wan Chai bypass to relieve traffic congestion, yet it is attracting more traffic into Central by proposing to sell 5.1 hectares of land for millions of square feet of commercial development.

Fact four. The plan, even on the face of it, does not satisfy the 'overriding public need' test ordered by the Court of Final Appeal. One million square feet of reclamation is not needed for the bypass, and does not satisfy the court judgment that reclamation must be kept to a minimum.

Fact five. The recent High Court judgment did not decide that the plan complied with the Court of Final Appeal test. The judgment simply ruled that, although 'it may well have been preferable for the Chief Executive-in-Council to remit the plan [to the Board], at least regarding the extent of reclamation', the court did not have the power to order the Executive Council to do so.

Fact six. The government acted with 'undue haste'. In the legal proceedings regarding the contract for the Central works, it was found that the government had rushed into the contract with full knowledge of the pending judicial review proceedings then being instituted by our society, and with 'too much haste'. If the government's intention was not to thwart the result of the judicial review, then it must explain why it acted in that manner.

Fact seven. As a result of the legal proceedings, the works contract was ordered to be retendered, but the government has refused to do so. If the government should comply with the decision and retender the contract, our society's efforts to seek judicial remedies in the courts will not be thwarted. The major hurdles we face in the judicial review proceedings are, first, the government's claim that it may have to pay $659 million in damages to the contractor, and second, by the time any judgment is given, it will be too late to restore the harbour.

Fact eight. The government has acted surreptitiously. It has refused to present even to Legco - despite its numerous requests - the Atkins report on the need for the Central scheme and the recommended extent of reclamation.

According to our best information, the report recommended much less reclamation. The government relied on this report to justify the plan, yet it has refused to show it to Legco, and given no valid reason, even though the report was prepared with $35.7 million of public funds.

The above facts speak for themselves. Victoria Harbour is a gift of nature to Hong Kong people and should be passed undamaged from generation to generation. Through the Harbour Ordinance, it is enshrined as a 'special public asset' (in the same way as the Legco building) and a natural heritage of the people (like the West Lake of China). Government officials are directed by law to protect and preserve the harbour and should not have the mindset of using it as a convenient source of land and a lucrative source of revenue.

It is not good enough for officials to claim that they also 'treasure the harbour' and then proceed to do the opposite. If reclamation is wrong, why proceed with three more projects: Central, Wan Chai and Southeast Kowloon? Reclamation must stop now.

This is the last chance for Hong Kong people to still have a harbour, rather than a river. Our society has found the law to be ineffective in protecting it. The only hope is the 'voice of the people'.

It is your harbour, your property and your home. Unless you stand up and speak out now, it will be too late. We owe it to our children, our children's children, and all those future generations who are yet to be born. Do not look over your shoulder, expecting someone else to do your job. There is only you.

Winston Chu Ka-sun is an adviser for the Society for Protection of the Harbour