Save the harbour or sell more land?
It is beyond comprehension that despite repeated pledges by officials in recent months that they treasure the harbour and will protect and preserve it, the government is nevertheless proceeding with three reclamation projects; in Central, Wan Chai and Kowloon Bay. Perhaps the government has not changed its traditional mindset towards the harbour, namely, that it is a convenient source to produce valuable land for sale.
Unfortunately for the harbour, there is a fundamental conflict of interests in the two roles of the government; first as the administration of Hong Kong with a responsibility to protect the environment, and second as the largest land owner which derives a large part of its revenue from land sales.
Traditionally, the government claims that the proposed reclamation will benefit the public, but it then proceeds to reclaim much more than is needed. This extra land is then sold to pay for the project, and to realise a hefty profit. One example is the West Kowloon scheme, which, under the pretext of providing a highway to Chek Lap Kok, became the largest single reclamation - 340 hectares (36.5 million square feet) - ever undertaken in Hong Kong.
Surprisingly, despite the enactment of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance in 1997, the government still adopts the same policy. In its brief to the provisional legislative council, dated May 29 1998, the government justified the Central reclamation project of the day by stating that 'the proposed reclamation would generate $14.76 billion from the sale of the commercial land'. Even now, the administration openly acknowledges that 5.1 hectares of the present Central reclamation will be sold for commercial development.
It seeks to justify this scheme by saying that it is necessary to relieve traffic congestion in Central. But the proposed extensive commercial developments, consisting of millions of square feet of floor space, will actually attract more traffic.
Furthermore, the government is reclaiming an extra one million square feet on the harbour side of the underground Central-Wan Chai Bypass, which is not needed for the bypass. In the West Kowloon scheme, 40 hectares of reclaimed land, originally zoned for a public park, has now been rezoned for commercial, hotel, residential and cultural development. No doubt, one day the extra one million square feet will also be rezoned for commercial purposes.
With the Court of Final Appeal judgment, the government should have realised that this traditional approach contravenes the Harbour Ordinance, which demands that reclamation can only be for an 'overriding public need' and must be kept to a minimum. The 5.1 hectares of commercial development, as well as the extra one million square feet, clearly do not satisfy this test.
The High Court judgment in the Central reclamation case pronounced that 'it is not the function of this court to decide the merits' and that it had no jurisdiction to determine whether the government was right or wrong with regard to the extent of reclamation. It is, therefore, misleading for the administration to claim that the judgment gave the Central reclamation scheme legitimacy.
For the Central scheme to comply with the Harbour Ordinance, the government must scrap its proposed commercial developments and should use the reclaimed land only for 'overriding public needs', such as creating landscaped open spaces in Central.
Unless and until the government resolves its fundamental conflict of interests by giving up its role as a producer of land for sale through reclamation, Victoria Harbour will always be in danger.
Winston Chu Ka-sun is an adviser to the Society for Protection of the Harbour