Advisers on green issues open up to the public

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2007, 12:00am

Government advisers on the environment agreed to a limited opening up of their meetings to the public following intense debate yesterday.

Under the decision by the Advisory Council on the Environment, future meetings of the full council will continue to be held behind closed doors.

Only the parts of subcommittee meetings in which it vets environmental impact assessment reports - the reports accompanying major projects in accordance with statutory requirements - will be open to the public.

These include briefings on the reports and representations by the parties concerned.

But the subcommittee meetings will resume closed-door status when members discuss whether they should endorse the reports.

The council also made it clear that any discussion on policy matters would not be made open.

The compromise came after six years of discussion on the issue, which only led to minor changes to agendas and release of minutes.

A study by the South China Morning Post published last month found that only 67 of 400 statutory and advisory bodies in Hong Kong have meetings open to the public.

The findings prompted calls by academics for the opening up of such bodies, noting that the lack of transparency alienated the public and made it difficult for the government to win support for its policies.

The partial opening up of the council's meetings was welcomed by Edwin Lau Che-feng, acting director of Friends of the Earth and a member of the council, saying it was a significant step.

'Either we maintain the status quo or we have a more transparent process on controversial environmental impact assessments,' said Mr Lau, a champion for greater transparency at the council.

Subcommittee chairman Ng Cho-nam said: 'Letting the public know who says what has little to do with transparency and more to do with accountability.'

He said the council already practised a high degree of transparency, since the agendas and minutes of meetings were posted online.

The decision to allow the public to hear developers' presentations and answers to questions from the subcommittee mirrors the practices of the Town Planning Board.

Council chairman Lam Kin-che defended the decision not to open up policy deliberations.

'As an advisory body to the government, we believe the most important thing is to provide quality advice,' he said, adding that opening meetings was an extension of transparency that already allowed the public a role in the subcommittee's work.

Council vice-chairman Wong Yuk-shan said the current practice allowed experts and professionals to give advice freely.