A chance to rebuild antiquities board

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 November, 2004, 12:00am

For such an important body, the Antiquities Advisory Board operates with little transparency or accountability. As the government reviews its approach to heritage preservation, looking at ways to change this should be a high priority.

The board is charged with giving the Home Affairs Bureau help in deciding what should be declared a monument and given legal protection against demolition. It is a major responsibility and - in a city where developable land is scarce and private property rights are fiercely guarded - a powerful mandate. The interests of the public play a large role in these matters as well. What should be preserved and at what cost are issues of common concern that need to be debated.

That is why it is discouraging to see that the board still operates with so little public scrutiny. Agendas, meeting times and minutes are not made public. Outsiders are allowed at meetings - but only at the invitation of the board. The rationale behind this is that confidential matters are often discussed; but the public has no way of verifying the validity of this argument. Little is ever released, other than final decisions on whether or not to extend monument status to a site.

One detail, however, is available upon request. That is the attendance record of the board's appointed members. It is lacklustre, at best, for some of the officials. Just as disturbing, important decisions have been taken without the required quorum of members. Examination of recent attendance records shows that the meeting where the board decided that certain parts of the Central Police Station site would not be protected did not have a quorum. The same thing occurred four years ago, at a meeting that cleared the way for a centuries-old walled village at Nga Tsin Wai to be knocked down. At that meeting, a developer's representative was present, but no one from the opposing side. It is difficult to know how often similar incidents have occurred.

A government consultation started in spring, posing general questions about whether the public wants to preserve our cultural heritage and how we want to go about it. The recent concern over sites such as Kam Tong Hall and the Central Police Station should provide a clear answer to the first question. As to the second, reforming the board would be a great place to start.

Independence and transparency for this body should be a priority. It has to be allowed to operate away from the influence of the government's Antiquities and Monuments Board.

A board drawn from the wider community might well be willing to take the tough decisions needed to preserve what is left of Hong Kong's dwindling historical heritage. Neither of these is happening now. And having the board deliberate in plain view of the public is surely the best way of guaranteeing that decisions will have wide support.