A missed opportunity to protect our harbour

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2010, 12:00am

Victoria Harbour and its waterfront belong to the people of Hong Kong. What the vast majority want to see happening has been clear for some time: shorelines that are accessible, rather than isolated by highways. They seek a vibrant harbour frontage where people can meet friends, take their families and even their pets; long and pleasant promenades graced with restaurants, museums, music and arts venues, parks full of trees and grass, and wide open spaces. Most people do not want any more mammoth office towers and malls built on reclaimed land.

Unfortunately, that is not likely to be the mandate of a new harbour watchdog proposed to the government by the now defunct Harbourfront Enhancement Committee. The committee met for the last time last week. Given what little it has achieved in the past five years, it is fair to say it will not be sorely missed. As a public relations exercise to placate critics of the government's then reclamation policy, it has served its purpose by giving more people a channel to voice their views.

The committee lacked solid achievements. It disbanded boasting exactly two temporary, albeit popular, projects: a dog park near the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Causeway Bay and a promenade in West Kowloon. The former has closed to make way for construction on the Central and Wan Chai bypass and the latter will disappear when work starts on the West Kowloon arts hub. But as a departing gift, the committee recommended setting up a harbour commission.

Early indications are that officials are amenable to the proposal. Little wonder: it would be appointed by, and report to, the financial secretary. The secretary for development would be its deputy chair. The proposed commission would remain an advisory body, with the government keeping a tight grip on its workings. This is despite more openings being proposed for people from different sectors and community groups.

Such a body is better than nothing but it is not what the public needs if the harbourfront sites are ever to become something we can all be proud of. The problem is that most land on the waterfront belongs to the government but its departments and bureaus jealously guard their territories. Officials are afraid to proceed with any enhancement or development project without a public consensus. It needs to factor in the interests of the business community, especially developers, yet it is loath to antagonise the public. As a result, the West Kowloon arts complex has dragged on while redevelopment plans for the old Kai Tak site are moving at a snail's pace. The only waterfront project the government has prosecuted with any urgency has been the Tamar development - to build a world-class headquarters for itself and the chief executive.

The current administration likes to do everything by consensus. Yet it is clear it has neither the political will nor capital to put forward any large scale project without attracting significant opposition from some powerful and vocal grouping or another. To break the impasse, what is needed is to set up a harbour commission that is independent and statutory so it has the necessary authority. It would need a visionary leadership that listens to the people, yet has the boldness and creditability to push through projects that genuinely enhance the city.

Unfortunately, the government does not want to give up any more power, so we will, in all likelihood, end up with another toothless advisory body.