The great Wing Lee Street contradiction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 March, 2010, 12:00am

The Urban Renewal Authority made a sudden U-turn this week, deciding to spare Wing Lee Street from the wrecking ball. Then, within a day, the Legislative Council passed a bill to make it easier for developers to attain old buildings for redevelopment by lowering the compulsory sale threshold by 10 percentage points.

Developers will need to secure 80 per cent ownership of a building in order to force its compulsory sale, once the new law takes effect on April 1.

Both cases involve the acquisition of run-down tenements for urban renewal. But there seems to be a lack of policy consistency and the government has, to a great extent, contradicted some of its policy principles. Some officials have clearly not been objective in making decisions.

The decision to preserve the 12 pre-war tenements on Wing Lee Street in Sheung Wan came after a long consultation process.

It went through all the necessary channels, similar to those for the redevelopment of Lee Tung Street, also known as Wedding Card Street, in Wan Chai years ago. That project drew vociferous opposition but the URA refused to budge an inch.

Even after owners of two tenements on Wing Lee Street renovated their blocks last year in the hope that they would be spared from redevelopment, the government still insisted on going ahead.

Why the change of heart now? Is it because of the award-winning film Echoes of the Rainbow, which was shot on Wing Lee Street? The government seems to have given in to public opinion sparked by a movie. It's hard to believe that the change was not politically motivated.

I am not against the government taking a keen interest in heritage preservation per se. And I agree that Wing Lee Street is worth preserving.

What I object to is the URA's policy inconsistency. Making decisions based on subjective evaluations will not win popular support.

The Wing Lee Street case has set a bad precedent that will affect future redevelopment projects, making it more difficult for the authority to acquire old buildings. More importantly, the authority has failed to make proper arrangements for those who are affected by the new decision. Those who had earlier accepted the authority's redevelopment offer now feel they have been unfairly treated, as they may have to shoulder the huge renovation costs themselves.

Most of the tenement blocks on Wing Lee Street have varying degrees of structural problems. The URA should help owners who have accepted redevelopment, and all the tenants, to find new homes. It has a moral obligation to hold up its end of the bargain.

Earlier this week, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's stern tone on lowering the compulsory sale threshold gave the impression that the government was bulldozing its path through Legco without a proper consensus.

This kind of approach is not good for long-term policymaking. It might have won the battle but it lost the war.

The administration didn't have to push the bill through Legco because there are still outstanding issues regarding compensation and rehousing that need to be ironed out.

The government has to ensure that affected owners and tenants are fairly treated. It was reasonable for some lawmakers to suggest postponing the bill for a year, which the government rejected.

It is necessary to speed up urban renewal, but it should not be done at the expense of the welfare of homeowners and tenants, otherwise the government will be accused of colluding with developers.

It should avoid being seen as giving preferential treatment to developers, especially after the passing of the bill to make it easier to acquire buildings for redevelopment.

Even though we know there is no government-business collusion in lowering the threshold requirement, everything must be above board and follow proper procedures.

Politics is perception, and perception can be deceiving sometimes.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator