Olympic facilities must have community input
Just months after the West Kowloon Cultural District debacle, the government has again shown its disregard for the people it supposedly serves. By washing its hands of infrastructure projects for the Olympic Games, taxpayers have been denied the right to determine how government land is used.
The government claimed a coup last month when Beijing Olympic organisers and the International Olympic Committee announced in Singapore that Hong Kong would host the equestrian events in 2008. A higher-profile sport had been sought - perhaps one popular with Hong Kong people or one in which our athletes perform well - so the announcement was greeted with muted enthusiasm.
As if to commiserate, the government said the Hong Kong Jockey Club would finance the $800 million cost, which involves building stables and other facilities on land presently used by the Sports Institute at Sha Tin. Athletes there, training for the Olympics, would be moved to the youth village at Ma On Shan, where $50 million in new facilities would be funded by the Beijing Olympic organisers.
When the games end, the athletes will move back to Sha Tin - although there is some doubt about whether they will get back all the land at the institute, which adjoins the Jockey Club's race track, as the club has expressed interest in keeping the ground for its own use.
Because the land at the Sha Tin and Ma On Shan locations is zoned for government, institute or community use, there is no need for government intervention to have it rezoned. Nor, it transpires, do legislators or the Town Planning Board have a say in what gets built on the sites because no government funding will be involved.
This is an identical situation to what happened at West Kowloon, where the government opened to private tender its idea of constructing a cultural hub for the city.
The unveiling of proposals and subsequent public outcry prompted a rethink and the involvement of the Town Planning Board - appointed by the chief executive, but nonetheless representative of the community through the involvement of architects, social workers and other members of society. The faults of the project can at least now be scrutinised and corrected.
For now, that cannot happen with the Olympic equestrian facilities. The design and construction of these facilities are fully in the hands of either the Jockey Club or the Beijing Olympic committee.
The Jockey Club is a highly responsible organisation which, through its work, has greatly changed the social fabric of Hong Kong for the better. Over the years, countless numbers of needy and disadvantaged people have benefited from the projects it undertakes.
Hong Kong's athletes are firmly in the sights of the Beijing Olympic committee. Although training schedules will be disrupted by the move to Ma On Shan, every effort will undoubtedly be made for facilities to be of an equal or better standard to ensure our sports men and women can give their best possible performances in Beijing.
While neither project is of a scale approaching that envisaged at West Kowloon, or offers the prospect of being as controversial, it is important that the lesson learned from the cultural hub controversy is not ignored.
With the government firmly set on saving public finances where it can by enlisting the expertise of private enterprise, the danger will always exist that the rights of Hong Kong people will also be signed away. Such a situation could evolve, for example, at the old Kai Tak airport site - prime land on the harbour where misuse could harm Hong Kong's image.
So as not to set a precedent, the Town Planning Board at the very least must be allowed to scrutinise the plans for Sha Tin and Ma On Shan and make recommendations where necessary. Its involvement, after all, is in the interests of Hong Kong and its citizens.