Heritage trust may be answer to preservation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am

The more acute the need for action to preserve our city's historic sites for future generations, the more glaring has become the lack of a coherent policy to achieve it. We do not even have a comprehensive benchmark for the relative importance of many hundreds of sites. The Antiquities Advisory Board has finally proposed gradings for more than 1,400 sites. It is inviting the public to comment and give their own gradings according to their view of the sites' historic or social importance.

As part of the first such stocktaking of our built heritage, the exercise is to be welcomed. The sites have been selected from nearly 9,000 candidates identified in a survey begun more than 15 years ago.

Identifying those really worth preserving is a good start to formulating a coherent heritage strategy. The lack of such a strategy has meant the government has often had to step in at the last minute to quell public outcries about threats to our heritage; a recent example was the defacing of King Yin Lei mansion in Mid-Levels, which alerted the authorities to the danger of its imminent demolition. It also left the government looking out of touch with public sentiment over the demolition of the Star Ferry pier and Queens' Pier in Central.

That said, the public consultation remains subjective and prone to local and cultural perspectives. When the talking is over, the government should tackle the need for a better defined and more effective grading system that meets international standards and is open to scrutiny. That is a necessary step towards a preservation regime that is firmly grounded in law and has consistent values.

As in the case of King Yin Lei, a lot of Hong Kong sites with heritage value are in private hands. The rights of property ownership must be respected, but in many cases the owners cannot afford to properly maintain the properties. The city therefore needs a viable policy for preserving them that resolves the question of how to compensate owners. Britain's National Trust, which has preserved built and natural heritage there for more than 100 years, confronted a similar problem decades ago when the owners of old country houses could no longer afford them. The circumstances were different, often arising from ruinous death duties, but the trust was by then well enough endowed to save them. It now has an income of hundreds of millions of pounds, mainly from millions of members, property income and heritage-related business enterprises. A similar set-up in Hong Kong is currently beyond our dreams. But there is an argument for launching a similar body.

Properties could be converted, where possible, to profitable uses, and the income used to preserve other properties. The trust could also tap the growing culture of philanthropy among Hong Kong's wealthy through gifts and bequests, with the promise of matching grants from the government. This would be a good way of securing a place in posterity that benefits everyone.