People power makes mark on authorities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2004, 12:00am

The decision by developers not to demolish the Hunghom Peninsula estate is a victory not just for people power - but also for common sense.

Sun Hung Kai Properties and a subsidiary of New World Development deserve credit for listening to public opinion and opting not to proceed with this wasteful demolition. The developers appear to have decided it was not in their best interests to press ahead with their plans in the face of such strong opposition from the community.

In the end, the petitions, protests and general public outcry hit home. As a result, Hong Kong has been spared unnecessary environmental damage and the dubious distinction of playing host to the world's biggest demolition of new, unused buildings.

Concerns have been raised that this issue became unduly politicised and that it may harm Hong Kong's reputation as a place which is governed by the rule of law.

But just because a corporation enjoys a contractual right to redevelop a site, it does not necessarily mean the right has to be exercised. The rule of law does not prevent the developer from being swayed by public opinion.

The government argues that the developers did not even have such a right - at least, not without official approval.

This would appear to be borne out by documents released last week under pressure from lawmakers. But the exchange of correspondence does not tell the whole story.

On the face of the documents, any significant change to the original plans for the site would have required a green light from the government. The developers had sought to have this condition waived in January - and that request had been rejected by the Lands Department. But this is not the end of the matter. The normal practice is for negotiations to then take place leading to official approval for development being granted - in return for the payment of a higher land premium.

Both the government and the developers would have been well aware of the situation. That is why the demolition plans were announced despite the government's refusal to lift the condition requiring official approval. It also explains why housing chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung reacted to the announcement by suggesting that higher land premiums would have to be paid - rather than ruling out redevelopment altogether.

It should also have been obvious from the start that the most likely outcome of the sale would be a plan by the developer to knock down the Home Ownership Scheme blocks and build something more attractive - and profitable. This, after all, is a prime site overlooking the harbour.

The sorry saga has now been provided with an unexpected but happy ending.

There are, however, many lessons to be learned. The problem arose from a flawed housing policy dating back to the 1990s. It was compounded by the government's failure to get a decent price for the estate - fuelling claims of unhealthy collusion between officials and developers.

The deal lacked transparency and accountability. It was sealed behind closed doors. And the details which were released last week would normally have remained private.

It is time for the government to consider whether, in the 21st century, it can still justify acting like a private landlord where public assets are concerned. There is a need for such deals to be conducted in a more open manner.

This would help reduce the risk of the perception that the government is pandering to big business. And that is an important consideration, given that similar concerns have been raised over the West Kowloon cultural district project and the sale of Housing Authority assets.

The effect of people power should go beyond the halting of a wasteful demolition. It should help bring about change - for the better.