A good start on saving city's historic buildings

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2008, 12:00am

One positive legacy the Hong Kong government is likely to leave is a commitment to protecting our physical heritage. Since being named the city's first heritage commissioner in April, Jack Chan Jick-chi has been busy setting up schemes and subsidies to encourage people to preserve historic sites. The latest subsidy plan aims to finance the upkeep of privately owned buildings with a heritage grading. This is a welcome move.

In return for receiving a subsidy, owners will promise not to sell or tear down the buildings, allow experts to inspect them, and open them to public viewing to varying extents. While this is a good idea, the money allocated to the scheme appears insufficient for the purpose. Each qualified owner will receive a maximum subsidy of HK$600,000; the entire budget for the programme this year is just HK$2 million. This will only be enough to finance a handful of properties, yet it is estimated owners of more than 200 private buildings may qualify for help under the scheme.

Furthermore, not all owners will be interested. Some may want to redevelop their properties; others do not want to be bound by stringent conditions. For example, the owners of Jessville, a 77-year-old mansion in Pok Fu Lam, and the King Yin Lei mansion in Stubbs Road, have been keener on exploiting the sites' commercial value than preserving the houses. There will be times when such owners need to be compensated monetarily or through land swaps. In the long term, a public trust should be considered to finance such deals.

But for owners who wish to preserve their properties, the new programme may be an attractive option. Officials have hinted that more money may be made available in coming years if owners respond favourably to it. The programme follows an earlier subsidy scheme aimed at non-governmental organisations under which those which lease government-owned heritage sites receive financing for their upkeep. Taken together, both schemes present a promising means to promote the preservation of privately and publicly owned heritage buildings. No doubt they can still be much improved, but the government has made a good start.