Development needs rules, not judges' rulings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2009, 12:00am

The row between the Urban Renewal Authority and Town Planning Board over the redevelopment of a site in Central should not be taking place. They have faced such problems before and vowed last year to ensure there would be no repeat. Despite their assurances, the possibility is again looming that the two statutory bodies will be unable to reach an agreement and judges will have to settle the dispute. This is no way for a city to function: it should not be left to the courts to set policy.

Development projects cannot be piecemeal; they have to be co-ordinated and planned. Consultation of all involved is essential. The process from idea to drawing board to construction has to take place in a timely manner and there should be no turning back once decisions have been made. Flaws in the planning process are to blame for the stalemate over redevelopment of the Staunton Street site. Two statutory authorities and four government departments are involved. They are clearly not working together towards the same objective. If they were, discord over a six-year-old plan would have been settled long ago.

Members of the authority's board on Monday decided to seek a judicial review if the planning board shrinks the area of the development. The planning board is inclined to amend the development to exclude historic tenement buildings on the site of a proposed 28-storey block of flats. Some of the companies and individuals involved bought the buildings or flats within the past two years and have renovated them, earning the planning board's applause. But the move would further jeopardise the renewal authority's project; it was turned into three fragmented sites in 2007 when Henderson Land was allowed to hive off part for a property development, and community concerns last year prompted the scaling back of another block of flats from 24 floors to six.

The authority's remit is to redevelop rundown parts of the city, but its projects have to be self-funded. Proposals are put to the government for approval, consultations held and the occupants of buildings bought out. To then have another statutory body step in - albeit with good intentions - harms the financial viability of the scheme and frustrates the authority's work.

Attitudes to development have changed since the Staunton Street project was unveiled in 2003. Heritage preservation, environmental concerns and sustainable living have replaced a development-at-all-costs mentality. The government and developers alike are aware of community wishes, leading to previously unthinkable changes to plans: in the past year Hopewell Holdings has reduced its Mega Tower project in Wan Chai from 93 to 55 storeys and the number of buildings at Nam Cheong West station has been cut from 11 to nine.

Good principles are at play on both sides of the Staunton Street battle. The renewal authority has listened to the community and reshaped its plans to better reflect the historical importance of that part of our city. Planning board members are siding with owners keen on doing such work for themselves, raising the question of whether the buildings really needed to be demolished. It is, however, regrettable that a referee is now required to resolve the mess. Hong Kong needs certainty about development. All people with an interest must be given a fair say, but an ad hoc approach is not acceptable. When a project has gone through a thorough consultation process and been approved by the government, only under exceptional circumstances should it be turned back. To use any other approach is to imperil the growth and direction of our city.