English language to blame for Ocean Terminal slip-up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am

'Thirty per cent of all development sites should be covered with greenery to help reduce the city's soaring temperatures, according to a consultancy study commissioned by the Buildings Department.'

SCMP, July 23

That was how our story began ...

'If developers strongly opposed the introduction of new laws, the study proposes setting up a comprehensive labelling scheme for green buildings as an alternative.'

SCMP, July 23

... and this was how it ended.

Imention it because in journalism we have a concept known as the 'inverted pyramid', the idea being that the most important bits go in the first paragraph and the least important bits go in the last paragraph.

Now, far be it from me to tell our news desk how to put out a newspaper but I would have thought the last paragraph of this story should have gone where the first paragraph went and the first one where the last one went or, better yet, not be included at all, because clearly we are never going to have 30 per cent greenery if developers are given the veto.

This is not to say that I don't appreciate the developers' point of view. How many dollars a square foot do you get for green bushes? There will be a price to pay for this greenery. Building costs will go up and saleable floor area will perhaps go down. If we insist on doing all this, the public purse may get less money from land sales.

But your question here is obviously the same as mine. Why should that choice be left to developers? If we, as a community, decide that more greenery on buildings for a cooler Hong Kong is worth the price and is the way we should go, why can that not be made binding on people who put up the buildings?

Silly you, silly me. Just ask yourself another question. Since when have we had a government that thought itself answerable to Hong Kong's people before it thought itself answerable to Hong Kong's developers?

Clearly this is the way the Buildings Department thinks.

'A judicial review into an apparent government decision not to grant a new lease for Ocean Terminal has been abandoned a day after it was revealed that the disputed decision had never, in fact, been made.'

SCMP, July 21

It's a funny thing about the English language that, although it is a very good general tool of communication and most lawyers find it perfectly suitable when they wish to convey specific meaning, sometimes it fails entirely, poof, just like that, and the result is complete misunderstanding.

Take this Ocean Terminal case. The people at Wharf (Holdings), which owns it, were convinced that a letter to them from the government said that the company's lease on the property would not be renewed when it expired in 2012. Wharf felt aggrieved about this and decided to take the government to court.

Came the court hearing last week and it turned out that the government said its letter never ruled out a renewal of the lease, that it was all a misunderstanding, that any discussion of the post-2012 future of the lease was premature and still is now. This seems to have left the judge in the case scratching his head. It certainly had me scratching mine.

I mean, there were obviously packs of lawyers from both sides all over this letter before the matter went to court and I have to assume that they all spoke English and that words contained in this letter had some common meaning on which these lawyers could agree.

How comes it then that one set of lawyers saw the words 'we have decided not to...' and the other set saw the words 'we have not decided to...'?

Neither set of lawyers has revealed the exact wording, but it had to be something along these lines. If they could not agree on what it actually said in black and white, then we must have had a failing of the English language, no other way about it.

Before we make this definite, however, let's make sure we have eliminated one other possibility. Wharf chairman Peter Woo Kwong-ching has had political ambitions in the past to the post of chief executive.

If he was aggrieved - and I think we can safely assume that he was - at a cavalier rejection by the government of a lease renewal of one of the company's prime assets, particularly when he believed that the lease would automatically be renewed, might he not have wanted to dust off his political ambitions in pursuit of justice and fairness in government?

Yet there was not a peep to be heard from Mr Woo in the last election for chief executive.

These are circumstances in which our government might do well for the sake of its own reputation to make it plain that there was no under the table deal by which officialdom would drop its opposition to the lease renewal for Ocean Terminal if Mr Woo stayed away completely from the race for chief executive.

It was the English language at fault, nothing else.