Rethink needed on how we handle big projects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 August, 2010, 12:00am

Look no further than the ventilation shaft planned by the Highways Department for the front of Two IFC to get an idea of what is wrong with the workings of our government. The 18-metre-high flue is an engineering necessity that will take vehicle exhaust fumes out of the tunnel being built between Central and North Point. That it will be in the middle of a deck designated for 'public enjoyment and festive activities', will obstruct harbour views and, if the wind is from the north, blow smoke in the faces of restaurant and bar patrons, is not of concern to planners. They say they have done their job and argue that changes will mean missed deadlines and excessive expense.

Moving the vent is possible. Harbourfront advisers say it can be placed several hundred metres to the west between flyovers, still within the gazetted area for the bypass. This will mean an added cost of HK$70 million, a fraction of the HK$28 billion budgeted for the project. A redesign will be necessary, a new funding request will have to be made and several other formalities met, but the 2017 completion date for the bypass can still be attained.

It is, after all, a simple case of where there's a will, there's a way. The government has shown time and again - most recently with the high-speed rail link and alterations to the design of its new headquarters in Admiralty - that changes can be swiftly pushed through. The vent is obviously too close to public space and commercial premises, so plans have to be altered. That process has to begin promptly.

Tunnel engineers did not make a mistake. A commercial building and hotel were originally proposed for the site, but pressure for better use of the harbourfront led them to set it aside for public use. The envisaged deck will connect IFC and the adjacent ferry piers, providing an unparalleled opportunity to create a vibrant and lively waterfront. Despite the changes, the vent remained.

Blame two of the main scourges of our government: a lack of co-ordination among agencies and inflexibility. The departments involved did not bother working closely with one another. Highways officials refused to redo work that had already been done. No one questioned the location of the ventilator.

The result is an outcome that we assume satisfies officials but does not meet the expectations of taxpayers. It is clear that the government's definition of planning and ours are different. While we perceive it as a comprehensive process involving a master plan and seamless interaction between departments and bureaus, reality is otherwise. The agencies generally work independently with little interaction.

There are any number of possible reasons. Among them could be ministerial rivalry, departmental turf protection and administrative officers angling to improve promotion prospects. Or maybe co-ordination of changes is simply too much hard work. None of these are in the spirit of the civil service, which is mandated to serve Hong Kong's people. Officials have to be sensitive to requirements.

Authorities are reviewing the plans. They can order the ventilator moved. That would be welcome but the wider problem remains. Addressing that requires a government rethink of how it does its work. In the case of big projects, the solution is taking decision-making out of the hands of departments and putting them with a higher authority, such as the chief secretary. A project office with oversight would create the best outcomes. There would be flexibility and the ability to improve. The city would be served as it should be.