Money vs heritage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2007, 12:00am

Too often, the government does not make policy but merely reacts to events and crises. An obvious example is the destruction of the 71-year-old King Yin Lei mansion on Stubbs Road. My former family home was near the mansion, and I used to gaze at it every day. It is, by any measure, an unusual building for Hong Kong, and most people who see it would say it should be preserved. It isn't an old building by international standards, but it is for Hong Kong - and it's one of the few Chinese-style mansions left intact.

But what if the owner, as a private resident, wants to sell or demolish the building and replace it with a new tower block? Do we say 'the building must go - that's just too bad'? That is what people used to say, because we didn't think the law could be used to freeze development in special cases. Nor did we think the public purse could be used to buy private property for heritage preservation.

Today, Hongkongers believe this can, and should, be done. For years, experts have said that our city needs a much better heritage preservation regime. But governments neither before nor after the handover have wanted to expend serious policy time to think things through. There were patchy efforts here and there.

In the case of King Yin Lei, the previous owner wrote to the Chief Executive's Office to explore its preservation. Following normal procedure, the letter was passed to the Home Affairs Bureau, which is responsible for heritage. It is unclear who saw it there, but clearly no one thought it was important enough to indicate any interest.

From the bureau, the letter was duly passed to the Antiquities and Monuments Office. The matter rested there until the public saw that the mansion was about to be destroyed. Then the current secretary of development slapped a one-year stay on the building.

We all remember the government's anxiousness, not long ago, to show it cared about heritage; it asked the public to identify 50 monuments to consider for preservation. Well, such 'feel good, show we are doing something' actions do not, and cannot, make up for devising well-thought-out policies.

What about the old Central Police Station? My office overlooks it; I see it eating dust day after day. There is no disputing that the building deserves preservation. So, who is working on it and at what speed?

There has been a lot of talk about what to do with the old police station, such as replace it with a hotel, or an arts area for the public with cafes and shops. The government doesn't want to go on paying for the running costs, so the priority has been to ensure that its future use would be self-financing.

The fact is that the whole matter has stalled. Even when a local family offered to donate HK$500 million to help with its preservation, the government didn't know what to do with it.

If our government continues to carry on this way, it can only be reactive and respond to crises as they blow up. How does Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration propose to deal with such issues?

In his election platform, he said: 'I will encourage government officials to change their mindset from that of policy formulator to that of interest co-ordinator.'

I don't know what that means, but I know it doesn't work. He is asking officials to co-ordinate various interests. What about the public interest? Is that just another interest?

No wonder policy is so hard to make. The government wants to minimise public expenditure and maximise revenue. A private property owner wants to do whatever he chooses with his land or building. The public also wants respect for property rights, but there are other issues the community cares about, too, like heritage.

With a government that has no vision - and uncertain values that focus on 'co-ordinating interests' - Hong Kong will continue to suffer from bad governance and poor policies.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange