Trust fund could improve heritage protection
It is refreshing, for once, to see a top official come out and admit what has been obvious to many people for a long time - that the system for protecting our city's physical heritage is inadequate. Speaking in the Legislative Council last week, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor described the system as 'passive' and 'not very desirable'. An indication of just how passive can be seen from our report today on the granting of monument status. Of the 59 historical buildings that the Antiquities Advisory Board advised the government to declare monuments between 1977 and 2005, only five are in the process of being granted this status. Another five have been knocked down, including two owned by the government.
These recommendations must be examined in their historical context. Many were made under the colonial government, when public awareness of the importance of preserving our heritage was not so high and officials had a high-land-premium policy to boost property development. The current system of grading buildings on their heritage value dates back to this era and, therefore, carries little legal weight. A building has full legal protection only when it is declared a monument. But this requires meeting a high standard that many otherwise historically worthy buildings do not meet. The system's inadequacy was highlighted again last week when the owners of Jessville, a 77-year-old mansion in Pok Fu Lam, backtracked on a promise not to knock it down for redevelopment, saying they were now keeping their options open.
In his policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen promised to introduce heritage impact assessments and establish a new commissioner post for heritage. Unfortunately, Mr Tsang has indicated that a heritage assessment will only be applicable to government projects and used for advisory purposes. This needs to change. Heritage impact assessments should be modelled on the current environmental impact study system, which applies to government and private building projects alike and has the power to stop them proceeding. Developing an effective heritage policy will not be easy, especially when it involves private property. Owners' rights need to be respected. There will be times when they need to be compensated monetarily or through land swaps. A trust fund, administered by the future heritage commissioner, should therefore be considered to make a revamped heritage protection system work.