Open-space policy must make the public No 1

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am

The subtext to the controversy over the lack of public access to open space on private or commercial estates is a familiar one - suspicions of greedy developers, in collusion with the government, exploiting valuable public space for their own use. This is probably not the case, but the way developers have been able to camouflage these premises for private use is a clear sign that the system has not worked in the public interest.

Under pressure, the Development Bureau yesterday released a list of about 150 sites that are privately managed but the public is entitled to access and enjoy. That it is even necessary to publish such a list - dating to 1997 - shows people have difficulty identifying these sites as being available for their use and enjoyment. But while developers need to be brought to account, this alone will not tackle the fundamental problem. Officials need to revamp the whole system and rethink the assumptions behind it.

On paper, the idea makes perfect sense. By providing extra public space on new private estates, the government can pass along the costs of design and upkeep to developers. They, in turn, are compensated with extra gross floor areas. In reality, developers have been able to design and manage these spaces according to their own needs, rather than those of the public. So they benefit doubly at public expense. The government is bound by policy to ensure specific amounts of open space per person to minimise overdevelopment and density. Unfortunately, officials tasked with realising maximum land premiums have long taken a cavalier attitude towards this requirement. This must now change.

The government should make developers pay the same land premiums for all space and then compensate the public with equivalent open spaces elsewhere. Alternatively, if it wants to continue the current system, it should impose additional conditions on developers. These should not only stipulate that public access to open space is to be provided, but also set standards for the quality of the areas concerned to ensure they can be enjoyed by the community.

Our quality of life must not be sacrificed to property and profit.