New tree regime has room to grow

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2009, 12:00am

One of the threats to Hong Kong's remaining old trees is a plague of bureaucracy. They can fall within the jurisdiction of any of about 10 authorities, each with different priorities, depending on the circumstances and where they are. Too often the confusion of authority over trees has proved a recipe for the loss of precious natural heritage to development or neglect. There is an argument that trees need to be protected by stronger laws administered by an authority with the power to enforce them. The reforms announced yesterday by Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen fall short of that, but they could be a step towards a more effective conservation and greening strategy.

The city is to get a new tree regime in the Development Bureau with more resources, staff and expertise. A tree management office will co-ordinate tree issues, while departments will continue to maintain trees under their jurisdiction. A greening and landscaping office will focus on centralised issues, mainly in large estates.

The proposal arises from the verdict of a coroner's jury that looked into the death of a young woman when an old tree fell on her in the main street at Stanley. The jury found that the tragedy could have been prevented by better risk assessment. Mr Tang admitted the present system is flawed by fragmentation of responsibilities between departments. Calls to the government hotline about trees will be directed to the new offices. Hopefully, this will curb the buck-passing that now goes on between different authorities.

Mr Tang claims the new measures will be more cost-effective than setting up a centralised authority handling all tree matters in connection with at least seven departments. That may be right in the short term. But the two new offices represent a new layer of bureaucracy that will cost an estimated HK$19 million a year in recurrent spending. In the longer term the government should be looking for economic synergies by rationalising the continuing fragmentation of responsibility. The two offices should also adopt as one of their goals making our urban areas more leafy.

The task force's rejection of a tree protection law has disappointed some lawmakers and experts. Mr Tang rightly pointed out that a law covering trees on private land involved sensitive questions of private property rights. But he has not ruled it out in the light of experience with the new administrative measures.

That said, the government has accepted the critical verdict of the coroner's jury in the right spirit, particularly its call for more staff training and recruiting of specialists. Public safety remains paramount. It is good that a stronger management system has been put in place and that it will be co-ordinated with a greening strategy for the city. Government policy to reverse the greying caused by early development that left us with little urban open space has wide community support. Our remaining valuable old trees are part of our precious natural heritage. But urban development can make it hard for them to thrive and they can become a threat to life and limb.