Time to think again on harbour strategy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2004, 12:00am

Over the many years during which half of Hong Kong's harbour has been reclaimed, a pattern has emerged.

A need for more land is identified; it is taken from the harbour; the fine waterside location that emerges is then turned into a huge construction site.

Skyscrapers go up, shopping malls are built, and new roads bar public access to the waterfront. The result is another unsightly blot on our disfigured cityscape. And the harbour shrinks further.

The government claims the Central reclamation project will break with this lamentable tradition. This time, it says, the land will be used to give the harbour back to the people.

Officials assure us that reclamation will be kept to a minimum. They say an underground bypass will reduce the traffic in Central, while a waterside park and promenade will allow the public to enjoy access to our city's greatest natural asset.

If this really is the case, it would be a first. So there is naturally a suspicion that the Central reclamation will go the same way as all the others - by becoming yet another site for commercial development.

These suspicions are strengthened by the results of research carried out by the Society for Protection of the Harbour. Rather than the 'beautiful arrangement' described by Tung Chee-hwa last year, a far more unattractive picture emerges.

The group's study of government plans reveals that much of this area in the heart of the city has been set aside for commercial development. Expect more concrete, steel and glass. Even the quaintly named 'Festival Market' to be installed in front of City Hall has the potential, under the plans, to become a seven-storey shopping mall.

And then there are the roads. A multi-lane monstrosity planned to run parallel to the harbour is likely to draw traffic away from the underground bypass and add to the congestion in Central. More noise and pollution would result.

If the society is right - or even close - we will be confronted with the same old story. This will be reclamation for the purposes of land sales and development. It will have little to do with easing traffic congestion or giving the harbour back to the people. And a great opportunity to create something special will be missed.

There is a strong case for reviewing the proposals. The society has asked the Town Planning Board to request that the government allow it to reconsider the plans. Whether or not the board makes such a request, the government should resubmit the plans for fresh consideration.

Until this is done, we cannot even be sure that the proposals are legal. They were prepared before the landmark court ruling in January that placed strict limits on such projects. The Wan Chai North reclamation is being reviewed as a result of that case. The same should happen with the reclamation in Central.

According to another court judgment in March, the chief executive is not legally required to take such a course. But there is no prohibition on him doing so. There is a moral duty to act.

Over the past year, public awareness of the need to protect the harbour has grown. There is now clearly a consensus in favour of restricting reclamation to the very minimum - and opening up the waterside to the public. Sending the plans for Central back to the Town Planning Board would provide an opportunity for the public to participate fully in shaping the future of their harbour. We do not need more offices and shopping malls built on this prime waterside site. What we lack are the public spaces and leisure facilities which will enable residents and visitors to better enjoy the harbour.

If the government presses ahead with its plans, the perception that it intends to repeat the mistakes of the past will grow.

Mr Tung has pledged many times to listen to the people. In the case of reclamation in Central, this can best be done by resubmitting the plans to the board. A rethink is needed.