Keep prejudices out of planning decisions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 November, 2004, 12:00am

The Town Planning Board has been handed a hot potato in the form of the Lo Uk mosque proposal and it will be interesting to see how it decides the matter at a meeting next week.

At issue is approval for a New Territories building that has already been built and in use for some time. The main backers are a community of Pakistanis living and working in the area.

An objection from local villagers seems to be the major obstacle to the board giving its blessing. The trouble is that the grounds for the villagers' rejection of the project are flimsy and, in some respects, downright xenophobic. Some of the reasons villagers don't want the building? 'This is a traditional Chinese village and we don't know what they are doing inside their mosque,' is a rationale provided by one elected representative. Potential for rising crime rates and late-night noise have also been cited.

But as far as can be determined, and as village representative Lo Kwai-ki has admitted to this newspaper, no one in the area's Islamic community has committed any crime. As for disturbances, perhaps a few dozen worship at the mosque on a daily basis, while the highest attendance, about 200, is at Friday noon prayers. It would seem the worship schedule and size of the congregation do not constitute a recipe for insomnia in the village.

The mystery is that a related proposal for a canteen serving the Muslim community has met with no objection. In all, it is difficult to avoid inferring that religious intolerance plays some role in this affair.

It will not be easy to find a solution acceptable to all. The building never received official approval and sits on a site zoned for other purposes. While this paper does not endorse the disregarding of planning and zoning laws, some flexibility is sometimes necessary.

The most straightforward answer in this case is for the board to stand up to the powers-that-be in Lo Uk by approving the mosque and rezoning the land. But this is not a given, considering the influence such villagers wield in local matters, including land use. Forcing acceptance of the mosque on them will also do nothing to help foster harmonious relations between the different ethnic and religious groups.

The Muslim worshippers, for their part, have paid in advance for their three-year lease and spent $400,000 building the mosque. Hints have been dropped that if the mosque were located on the fringes of the village, that might be acceptable. If the mosque's supporters are asked to move - and a suitable location is found - will the deal include any compensation?

The privileges and preferences of villagers identified as indigenous have long been allowed to trump just about all other priorities. This is especially evident in the area of land use. How the Lo Uk situation is resolved will tell us whether these anachronistic attitudes and practices are changing fast enough.