Ideal deal for Hong Kong's heritage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 12:00am

The Hotung family must be disappointed that the government has turned down its request to spend $500 million to turn a cluster of 17 historic buildings, including the Central police station, Victoria Prison and the old Central magistrates court, into an arts complex and to set up a non-profit-making body to run it.

But there are good reasons why the government should stick to the principle of disposing of public assets through competitive bidding, even though there are precedents whereby historic buildings were sold or rented for nominal sums to non-profit-making bodies that spent a fortune to preserve them.

For example, the Asia Society will spend $200 million to restore the old British army explosives magazine buildings, at what remains of Victoria barracks, behind the British consulate. In exchange, the government agreed to grant the society a five-year lease for an annual rent of $1.

But disposing of public assets by private agreement should always be regarded as the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, there was criticism at the time that the deal with the Asia Society was made with little transparency, as no other non-governmental organisations were given the chance to put in bids.

The Central police station site is of a much higher historic value than a desolate part of Victoria barracks. Because of its prime location, it also has enormous commercial potential, and many people are interested in making good use of it. A very convincing case will have to be made to allow it to go to anyone without an open and transparent bidding process, however noble its motive.

That is not to say that the Hotung family's bid should not be given a fair assessment along with other proposals. Hopefully, it will win on its merits, including a plan not to run the complex as a money spinner.

The wider issue for the community is how we should deal with innovative initiatives to preserve our heritage. Had the Asia Society not stepped in, the old magazine buildings would only have deteriorated further, and a piece of Hong Kong's history could have been lost forever.

Yet, as a Chinese saying goes, a barren piece of land will become hotly sought after once a farmer starts to till it. Should the first farmer who came up with the bright idea of ploughing it be rewarded for his initiative by being granted the first right to lease or buy it? Or should the land be put up for tender so that every farmer has an equal opportunity?

In disposing of government land, the list application system provides that a site will be put up for auction after a developer has submitted a request to buy it. It extends no favour to the first proponent. All agree that this is a fair and transparent system, which ensures no favouritism and maximum return to the public purse.

But such an arrangement would not seem so fair if the property concerned usually does not attract any interest and has become valuable only because someone has found a unique way to exploit it. Wouldn't it be unfair to its creator if the idea, once made public, was picked up by others who then get the right to the site by coming up with even better proposals?

What if we developed a set of criteria to strike a balance between ensuring open and competitive bidding and rewarding those who came up with ingenious ideas to preserve public assets or put them to good use? It would not be easy. But if we could do so, many of our otherwise desolate pieces of public property, such as run-down heritage sites or vacant lots beneath flyovers, could find new leases of life.

Of course, if it is mishandled, we could see many projects like Cyberport, which was granted to one consortium on the basis of a 'bright' idea without competitive bidding.

C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy