Urban planning

Encroachment on public space must be stopped

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2008, 12:00am

Government officials are good at negotiating terms, when they auction land, to make sure developers set aside areas for public use and amenities. But they have done a poor job when it comes to monitoring these sites and ensuring that corporations fulfil their side of the bargain.

Developers know this; and over the years, they have routinely exploited this lack of scrutiny, using what ought to be public areas for private or profit-making purposes. Many deliberately make these areas look as if they are private - such as by stationing security guards around them or designing them in such a way as to blend in with the rest of the property. Some, misleadingly, advertise them as private amenities during promotions for residential flat sales.

The government's negligence, in this regard, borders on maladministration. People's right to enjoy public open spaces is being compromised. The latest case in point is Times Square in Causeway Bay. A deed dating back to 1989 requires that more than 3,000 square metres on the ground floor be maintained as recreational areas and passageways for the public. Yet for years the shopping centre has been renting out these areas for promotional and entertainment events - sometimes for up to HK$124,000 a day. The mall's security guards monitor and control passers-by, sometimes shooing off lingerers or domestic helpers when too many of them gather in groups. It now appears they have no right to do so.

But Times Square is by no means an isolated case. The practice is widespread. Thankfully, the government has responded to a public outcry over such abuse. Director of Lands Annie Tam Kam-lan said yesterday her department would release a list of 150 areas on private premises that ought to be open to the public. This is the least the government should do. It must now follow through to ensure that sites on the list are used for this purpose.

According to a University of Hong Kong survey last month, nearly one in four private residential developments failed to comply with Town Planning Board conditions. Breaches include failing to build footbridges and pedestrian links or provide open public areas. This problem has been long-standing. There was a public outcry in 1997 - and officials were singled out for criticism - after a police vehicle ploughed into a crowd in Queen's Road Central, killing three people and injuring scores of pedestrians. It emerged that a footbridge should have been built between what is now Aon China Building and the Entertainment Building to ease pedestrian flows. This had been the position since 1975 when their original owners were given concessions on floor space.

It is the government's responsibility to make sure building owners and developers meet their obligations and that public places are kept open and available. To this end, they should be made to post highly visible signs to advertise them for public use. The government should consider imposing a penalty on those who fail to promote public usage, or worse, try to colonise public spaces for their own use. Contract loopholes also need to be closed. Now, there is usually no time limit set for when public-use conditions must be met. This needs to be rectified. Dedicated inspectors are also needed to ensure conditions have been met after buildings are completed. Officials must, however, be careful to target the original culprit, not current flat buyers who might have no idea about the builder's misdeeds.

Preparing the list of sites is a good, although overdue, first step. But a crackdown is also justified, to make sure developers stop profiting from what belongs to the public.