If only officials would listen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2006, 12:00am

With the Star Ferry pier in Central little more than a memory, it is time for the government of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to re-examine its consultation procedures and find out how it could have got public sentiment so wrong.

Instead, it seems the government's position is that it was right and that the people were wrong. This was made clear by Michael Suen Ming-yeung, the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, who said people should learn a lesson and express their views earlier.

'We have consulted very widely among various stakeholders ... We have consulted the relevant district councils, Mr Suen said. 'We have consulted the Legislative Council and other stakeholders.'

The problem is that the government had not consulted any of the people who went on hunger strike in an attempt to save the pier and its clock tower.

It had not consulted the people who climbed up the scaffolding and demanded a meeting with Mr Suen. It had not consulted the demonstrators who, even at the last minute, tried to halt the demolition.

In short, the government had not consulted the people.

It is not enough to say that various bodies were consulted. The Star Ferry has been a Hong Kong icon for over a century. Every single individual in Hong Kong is a stakeholder.

Incredibly, the government appears surprised by the response to its actions. But even though the consultation was extremely limited, it should still have understood public sentiment, if only it had been willing to listen.

After all, it had commissioned a heritage impact assessment of historical buildings and structures affected by Central Reclamation Phase III, which included the Star Ferry pier.

The report said: 'The pier, especially its clock tower, is a visually important landmark in Hong Kong. It is an eye-catching icon within the beautiful Hong Kong Harbour...

'No other ferry pier along the harbour could possibly perform such a symbolic function as this clock-tower pier. The removal of the Star Ferry Pier to Piers 4-7 leading to its destruction would likely raise public objection and dismay.'

As for the proposal for relocation, the report said: 'Its future home in Piers 4-7 as proposed is entirely not welcome.'

However, since the government was determined to make the move, the study said: 'Consideration should be taken to relocate the clock tower, if not the whole pier building, to a new home suitably in harmony with its surroundings.'

And what did the government do about this study? Nothing. As a result, the public was unaware of it. While other reports were posted on the website of the Environmental Protection Department, this one was not.

Earlier this month, Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping referred to this study when he addressed Legco.

He said: 'The government conducted a built heritage impact assessment for the Central Reclamation Phase III in 2001. Having assessed the impact of the project on the Star Ferry Pier, the report recommended to re-provision the Star Ferry Pier at the new Central Ferry Piers.'

Such a description of the report is not truthful, to say the least. As we have seen, the study said that relocating the Star Ferry pier to the proposed new location was 'entirely not welcome'.

Yet Mr Ho told Legco the study recommended that the Star Ferry pier be relocated there.

With the government misleading the public and suppressing information, it is little wonder that people now deeply distrust officials.

In November, after a Legco panel had voted to save the Star Ferry tower, the government said it would consider blending it 'into the future design of the Central waterfront'.

The next thing we knew, the clock tower had been demolished, with the pieces taken away by barge for possible use in reclamation of the harbour in Central.

That, I dare say, was not the kind of blending into the waterfront that legislators wanted.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com