Power block

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 May, 2006, 12:00am

Parking facilities for bikes in Tseung Kwan O, the allocation of stalls in a Shamshuipo jade market and the planting of trees in Wan Chai are among the issues in districts that are deemed trivial. But when it comes to people-based governance, they're matters that count.

The establishment of district boards in 1982 - renamed district councils in 2000 - marked a significant step in democratic politics. As the junior class of politics, the lower-tier 18 district bodies provided the breeding ground for political aspirants and quickly emerged as a key component of representative government.

However, 24 years on - and six years after the abolition of the middle-layer regional and urban councils in 2000 - an ongoing review of the rules, functions and composition of district councils has drawn mixed reaction.

The public greeted the proposals to give more powers to district councillors with a degree of indifference and doubt, although they generally agreed with the broad direction of a bigger role for members. And district councillors and political parties had no good reason to oppose initiatives from which they could benefit.

But political scientists viewed the proposals as piecemeal, lacking a long-term vision about the place of the councils in the political structure. And privately, government officials admitted that room for any drastic changes in the review was extremely limited.

This newspaper has learned that officials at one point considered not to conduct the consultation exercise as promised, in the wake of the rejection of the constitutional reform blueprint in December.

An Executive Council member, who didn't want to be named, said: 'There would have been more room for bigger changes if the electoral blueprint was approved. For example, one logical idea was to regroup the 18 district councils into five or six district bodies.

'The significance and public stature of these bigger councils would be quite different. As it is, the review did not touch on the long-term role of district councils in the constitutional development of Hong Kong,' he said.

Democrat Gary Fan Kwok-wai, who sits on the Sai Kung District Council, said whether the Exco member's claims would have occurred if the reform package was passed was anybody's guess.

'Compared with what the government has said of the role of district councils in its previous reports on constitutional development, the consultation paper falls far short of our expectations,' he said.

What could only be described as a rebirth of district councils was flagged when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen mapped out changes aimed at strengthening governance in his policy address last October. While expanding the powers of district councils, he promised to allow greater participation in the chief executive and Legco elections. 'The role of the district councils will be expanded,' he said. 'We will continue to make available more channels for the public to participate in the management of district affairs.'

Under the so-called 'district council model' announced later, all 529 district council members will elect six legislators in 2008, up from just one in the 2004 Legco elections. They will also sit on a 1,600-member Election Committee that elects the chief executive in 2007.

Then came the drama leading to the vetoing of the blueprint. And when the government announced the district council review a fortnight ago, it was doomed to be a limited exercise, far from the promised major reform. A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: 'There are two kinds of power - hard power and soft power. Hard powers, such as the power to approve funds, are not possible, at least for now. The scope of powers for district councils has been laid down in the Basic Law. [However] enhancing the participation of district councils in managing district affairs is the kind of soft power that can be further explored.'

The government proposes that each of the 18 councils form a district facilities management committee to initiate and endorse proposals for the management of nearly 1,700 district facilities - libraries, swimming pools, community halls and so on. The councils would also be empowered to initiate and endorse projects costing up to $15 million each, to be paid from a $600 million annual fund for minor works projects, and recreational and cultural facilities.

A steering committee headed by the Secretary for Home Affairs will be set up to resolve interdepartmental management issues. And the chief executive will convene an annual summit of district councils to review work, compliment best practices and identify areas for improvement. Allowances for members will be raised by 10 per cent to $18,700 a month.

Lee Lap-hong, a non-affiliated Sha Tin District Council member, said: 'All except the monthly allowance are minor changes.'

He said the exercise of the so-called soft power of members' participation in district affairs management was often undermined by factional conflicts within council. The devolution of hard powers on matters including finance and personnel management was necessary for councils to play a bigger role in district administration. The role of district officers, who should be retitled district commissioners, should be strengthened by making them political appointees to be named by the chief executive, he suggested.

If given more powers and a higher political status, the commissioners would be in a stronger position to secure support and co-operation from government departments over district affairs, said Mr Lee, who is also a member of the think-tank SynergyNet.

At present, district officers come from the ranks of administrative officers - a junior directorate grade - and often move to other posts after two or three years. High-flyers in the administrative services have shunned postings to districts as the significance of district councils sharply declined in the past decade.

Laurence Ho Wing-him, a retired senior official who worked in the districts, said the proposal of a steering committee headed by a policy secretary would push the decision-making of district matters upward.

'Back in the '70s, district officers were able to get a lot of things done in districts on their own. But beginning from the '80s and through the '90s, they had to go to senior-grade officials to get things done. Now, they will have to get department heads and permanent secretaries to step in. This will weaken district administration in the long run,' he said.

Former chief secretary, Sir David Akers-Jones, who was a key figure behind the district administration system, said the government was moving in the right direction, but more could be done to reinvigorate district politics.

Recalling his experience in Yuen Long in the 1960s, Sir David said district-based community associations could be closely integrated in district affairs. He suggested that the appointed seats be abolished and a new category of members, who do not have the power to vote, should be created for groups such as sports, culture and music bodies to take part in district affairs.

'These groups know better than anyone about the needs of residents. It would be good for community-building if we integrated these groups with district councils,' he said.

Sir David agreed the post of district officers should be changed. Instead of a civil servant, he said a new post of district manager should be recruited from outside. 'These will be people with political sense and touch, knowledge and a good network in districts. They should not be appointed by Donald Tsang. Otherwise, they'll all come from the DAB [Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.]

'Their duty is to liaise with councillors and departments and to implement decisions and monitor progress of projects. People in districts will know who they are. We are facing a lot of difficult decisions on issues such as a goods and services tax, health care financing, an ageing population and the wealth gap. It's a very important part of community building that people in districts feel they're informed and are being consulted.

'The changes will instil a sense of belonging and pride in district identity and participation,' said Sir David, who now heads the Business and Professional Federation.

Mr Fan, the Democrat district councillor, agreed the government had made moves in the right direction, and said his party would abstain, not vote against, the proposals when the review was put to district councils.

'It's far from enough to attract people to participate in district council work. How many more years do we have to wait for more powers for district councils?

'I don't mind managing swimming pools and libraries, but our powers are so limited it's difficult to have a sense of achievement. If people find they can also play a meaningful role in district council they do not necessarily have to scramble for seats in Legco.'