Heritage policy a community-wide issue

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am

Several weeks ago the Antiquities Advisory Board, which I chair, received a report that had taken some four years to complete. It was a list of 1,444 historic buildings in Hong Kong, together with proposed grades of one to three to indicate how important it is to preserve each of them. This major project, carried out by a panel of experts, is easily the most comprehensive survey ever of heritage sites in our city.

As I expected, the news the next day was full of complaints. Conservationists disagreed with some of the gradings because they thought particular sites needed stronger protection. One owner of a 'grade one' building was angry because no-one had consulted him and he thought it would be hard to sell his property.

So, for what seems like the 10th time, let me repeat: these grades are simply proposals. The proposals give some 200 sites grade one status, which means every effort should be made to preserve them, and grade two to about another 500. But I cannot stress enough that this allocation of grades is not set in stone: there is no reason why, for example, the number of grade one sites should not be much bigger - or, in theory, smaller.

The proposals are simply for reference as a starting point for the real discussion. That is the next part of the process and it needs you, the public, to join in. The Antiquities and Monuments Office website is a good place to start. We want views on the proposed grades and alternative suggestions, but we are also interested in whether and why people feel particular sites are important - or not.

We also want facts, wherever possible, about things like sites' private rights or cost of preservation. In some cases, members of the expert panel could not locate building owners or were refused access to interiors of buildings. This information is important.

The board wants an outcome that wins the support of the overall community, including neighbourhoods, the government and - as far as possible - owners of privately owned buildings.

To get such a result, we need to engage the public as widely and transparently as possible. So, for example, we will be approaching district councils and asking them to help us get local views.

We definitely want to make sure that no-one can say the decisions were made behind closed doors. At the same time, we want to ensure that everyone who is interested gets a fair say; while we value the views of active conservationists and campaigners, we don't want them to monopolise talks.

Even after we have completed the public engagement exercise, which ends on July 31, there will be much work to do. It could be that some sites will prove to be particularly controversial, in which case I might ask my colleagues on the board to put them aside for a while so we can finalise decisions on the rest.

Further ahead, there will be the issue of how the community wants to protect its most valued historic buildings. In other words, how the community wants to pay for it. Traditionally, this area has ranked very low in the government's spending priorities, but we are seeing signs of new thinking among officials on quality-of-life issues, so it is possible that public money will play a bigger role.

Even so, the community will need to consider the trade-offs - as with all public spending - and think of new ways to generate funds for a growing number of preservation projects.

I am mentioning that side of the issue now because it is one of things people must consider when providing feedback, and we want views to be as well-informed as possible. Most of all, I want everyone to be satisfied that the process is as open as it possibly can be - not just on principle, but because I believe it is essential to the quality of the outcome.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils


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