Harbour masters?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 April, 2008, 12:00am

Why is it so hard to leave Victoria Harbour alone? More than a decade ago, legislation was passed to protect it from overexploitation by means of reclamation and, five years ago, the law was tested in court. The court determined that reclamation could only proceed if it could be proved there was an overriding public need - an objective test, where the proponent had to show there was no other viable alternative, and any reclamation must be kept to a minimum.

The Town Planning Board lost the case over a plan for the Wan Chai-Causeway Bay waterfront. One of the most objectionable features was the creation of a large harbour park, which was deemed by the board to be nice, as it provided a new recreational amenity in the middle of the harbour. The plan failed the overriding public-need test and, since then, the government has been working on a new plan.

There have been many rounds of public consultation, and reams of documents and drawings released. The government's Central-Wan Chai bypass required about 15 hectares of reclamation. Public discussion focused on how best to keep reclamation to a minimum.

Officials did not tell anyone they were also working on a plan involving extensive reclamation of another 10.7 hectares - or about 1.15 million square feet. Half the reclamation would affect the Causeway Bay typhoon shelter, and a new 500-metre-long breakwater would be created, protruding far out into the harbour. This piece of reclamation would be even more extensive than the harbour park.

The government claimed there was no need to inform the public because officials had determined the reclamation they were labouring on in secret was 'temporary' in nature.

It was only through community vigilance that the temporary reclamation plan was uncovered and, despite many requests for information, little was made known about the exact size and location of the work involved, or a timetable for removal. The public only learned the full story through another court case. The government tried to get away with extensive reclamation without having to undergo the overriding public-need test. On March 20, the court ruled that all reclamation had to observe the law.

It turns out that the additional reclamation is mainly to provide mooring space for the private yachts of a nearby club. The government should have considered alternatives. Moorings could be provided elsewhere for a number of years while the bypass is built.

Yacht owners, who probably want to keep their boats near their clubhouse, would be inconvenienced, but there is no justification for taking another very large bite out of Victoria Harbour for this purpose. Surely, in this case, the public interest of harbour protection should prevail.

Now that this plan has been derailed, any blame for its delay must surely fall on those in government who devised it in secret. Instead, however, the administration wants to be seen as the victim, not the perpetrator. So, the Society for Protection of the Harbour, the litigant, is being unreasonably blamed for the delay.

There are previous examples of 'temporary' reclamation outside the harbour becoming permanent. Indeed, once a piece of water is reclaimed, it is no longer protected by law. That is why the law covers all reclamation; it would be dangerous to exempt 'temporary' work.

The current situation is simple: does the additional 10.7 hectares of reclamation pass the overriding public-need test? Could alternative moorings be found, obviating the need for reclamation? Had the government sought alternative space from the start, there may well have been no court case and no delay to the construction of the bypass. That would have been the sensible thing to do, and also the much cheaper option for the public purse. So, why take another chunk out of the harbour?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is the chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange and chairperson of the Society for Protection of the Harbour