When today's policies threaten tomorrow
It was at best shortsighted of the government to claim it was unreasonable to halt demolition of the Star Ferry and Queen's piers. Its reasons? Work on the Central Reclamation scheme was proceeding at full steam, and all procedures had been duly followed, it claimed.
A recent study on Hong Kong's competitiveness identifies that the city's ranking is suffering because of its land policy, high land prices and deteriorating environment. Overdevelopment is destroying the quality of life, and will ultimately destroy economic growth.
When the government says development can't be stopped, officials are not talking about technical issues or contracts. The government always retains the right to make any changes it chooses, thus minimising compensation. What the government means by 'development' is its land disposal programme and road works to support and enable land sales. Fifty years of property- and infrastructure-led development has the government believing that this is the only form of progress suitable for Hong Kong.
With the dependence on land sales revenue, the large number of overpaid government road engineers without meaningful work, and the interest in the status quo by developers, we have a powerful inertia which makes change difficult. This is especially so for the likes of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung, who have grown up in this system.
The protest over the Star Ferry clock tower is but the latest attack on the government's land disposal programme. Leaving the clock tower standing would have made the sale of the site, and maintaining the intensity of the proposed groundscraper development, more difficult. Or so officials think. Neither Mr Suen nor his department's permanent secretary, Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan, have any idea about how they could combine the two. Nor do they have any working relationship with professionals who could show them how. At no stage did they communicate with activists, harbour planners or conservation groups.
Clearly, whatever the cost, they were not going to let this new attack on their land sales revenue succeed. But they miscalculated the tenacity of the protesters. More importantly, they miscalculated public sentiment in support of cultural and heritage preservation, and public antipathy for the overdevelopment of our city. And they still don't understand what is really driving public sentiment.
Heritage is becoming a big issue. The government fears this sentiment will hurt land sales and roads programmes even more, shown by the delay in funding for projects like the Central Kowloon link.
Thus, officials are working frantically to defuse the situation by announcing a strategy for heritage protection - one they can control - with new members of dysfunctional committees and the promise of yet another public consultation. On top of this, Mr Tsang has made it clear that we 'the public' really have to understand that development (read: land sales and road works) can't stop.
Unless a new concept of development emerges, such bureaucratic incompetence will continue to result in blunders such as the demolition of the clock tower. Land sales and construction jobs offer only short-term benefits. The development of culture, together with the conservation of heritage, will result in the sustainable development of our city. And it will generate jobs over the long term, as we entice talented people to make Hong Kong their home, and visitors to spend an extra day here.
Paul Zimmerman is convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District