Waterfront authority must listen to the people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 July, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong needs an independent statutory authority to protect the rights of the owners of the harbour and its waterfront - the people. Nothing less will break the impasse over community consensus on development. The new Harbourfront Commission falls short of that. But it is the best we have until the city gets truly representative government. It is important, therefore, that it is more effective than its predecessor.

The mission of the now-defunct Harbour-front Enhancement Committee was to give the people a bigger say in what happens to their most precious natural asset. In reality, it was little more than a public relations exercise to placate critics amid an outcry over the government's reclamation policies. It was never going to bring about a sea change in the development mindset.

If the committee served a purpose, it was to give more people a channel to voice their views. If it had a meaningful legacy, it was its recommendation that it be replaced with a commission that would have more authority to carry out its mission.

The composition and role of the newly announced commission holds out hope. Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will be deputy chairwoman. Chairman Nicholas Brooke, a surveyor, businessman and member of the old committee, says this demonstrates the government's commitment to making things work better. If she can improve co-ordination between departments focused on their own agendas that will make a difference. Where she cannot, Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen will have the final say. That will be a test of the government's sincerity and resolve to strike a better balance between development and the people's rights.

Brooke says the commission will be proactive in the planning and execution of projects, instead of playing a follow-up role. It needs to be, because restoring the access and amenity of the rightful owners of the harbour involves negotiating a maze of vested, territorial and political obstacles. An unelected administration errs on the side of caution in balancing the interests of the people and the business community. The slow progress of the West Kowloon arts complex and development of the old Kai Tak site are cases in point.

The commission inherits 22 action areas already identified around Victoria Harbour. Brooke hopes it will draw up a five-year master plan which taps the flair of the private sector and encourages public-private partnership. That is a sensible approach. It can show that it means business by assuming oversight of development of a prime site in Central, between the IFC towers and the ferry wharves - the first waterfront land to be developed by public-private partnership.

It remains to be seen if the new body can forge a consensus that reconciles development with the public's expectations. Stakeholders in waterfront development are well represented. Officials, professionals, non-government organisations and developers account for 18 of the 26 seats on the commission. Eight unofficial members include two district councillors and an urban design expert, along with three younger members of leading tycoon families and a representative of hotel interests. And an accountant.

They must ensure that the people, too, have the ear of the government. It is therefore important, as Brooke has promised, that the commission consults the public at an early stage to ensure that design and management plans for waterfront sites meet expectations. That means listening as well.