Common sense prevails in superjail decision

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 12:00am

The plan to build a huge jail complex on a small, scenic island in the South China Sea was ill-conceived, expensive and unpopular. So the government is to be commended for shelving the project. Officials, it seems, experienced a rare attack of common sense.

The sudden U-turn was unexpected. The proposal for the so-called superjail had been in the pipeline for almost four years. The Security Bureau argued it was the only viable way of tackling overcrowding in the prisons.

A state-of-the-art complex was to have been constructed on Hei Ling Chau, near Lantau, at a cost of $12 billion. It would have accommodated more than 7,000 prisoners and allowed eight existing institutions to be demolished.

An initial feasibility study had been completed at a cost of $7 million. The public had been consulted. And opponents of the plan had, only four days earlier, failed in a bid to derail it by having the intended site rezoned as a greenbelt area.

There was every reason to expect that the government would push full steam ahead with the project - whatever the opposition. Instead, the voices of the people were heard.

Last week, the Security Bureau announced that the project was being shelved in the face of public opposition. An alternative solution to the undoubted problem of overcrowding in our prisons is now being sought.

This decision casts the government in an unusually favourable light - flexible, reasonable, and responsive. It is an approach which fits very well with Tung Chee-hwa's new 'people-orientated' approach and goes some way towards answering the call from Beijing for improved governance.

But the decision is also likely to have been based on a cold calculation of the political costs that would be incurred if the project had been pursued. In particular, the government must have been worried it would not secure enough votes in the Legislative Council.

Lawmakers had already succeeded in having the original plan to hold more than 13,000 inmates in the superjail drastically scaled down. There were valid concerns about the security risks involved in having so many prisoners held at one location. And the multibillion-dollar price tag raised understandable doubts about whether the plan made sound economic sense.

Then there was the question of potential damage to the environment. Some of the legislators who supported the trimmed-down project expressed such concerns. And these were going to be difficult to overcome.

An alliance of environmental and residents' groups had mounted a sophisticated campaign against the superjail project. Opposition from local residents was to be expected, no matter where the jail was to be built. But the island the government had selected is an ecological hotspot and had earlier been proposed by officials as a conservation area.

Even the government's own advisers on the environment had criticised the manner in which the site had been selected and raised concerns about the scale of the development.

The results of the public consultation seem to have been the last straw. The Security Bureau noted that this had drawn objections - and suggestions that an alternative site be sought.

It is interesting that these views were recognised and acted upon - because they were not intended to form part of the consultation. The public had only been asked to express views on the various plans for the Hei Ling Chau site. Opinions had not been sought on the wisdom of the superjail project or the suitability of the chosen location.

The willingness of the government not only to listen to the public on this issue - but to do what the public wanted - is a promising sign. The 'people-orientated' approach will not work with every policy decision. But on this occasion, it was a sensible course to take.