Action urged to protect historic sites
Heritage advisers want a more proactive approach to conservation after learning that a 77-year-old villa owned by rural chief Lau Wong-fat was left to rot despite having a historic grading.
Government officials, meanwhile, are finally inviting proposals to set up a heritage trust after years of talk.
The Antiquities Advisory Board discussed the Yu Yuen villa yesterday after the South China Morning Post reported that the 1934 house in Yuen Long, owned by the Heung Yee Kuk chairman and once earmarked for redevelopment, had fallen into disrepair and was downgraded from a Grade I historic site to Grade II last year.
'The Antiquities [and Monuments] Office didn't tell us the owner was Lau. We might have had a different approach if we had known,' said board chairman Bernard Chan. 'For owners who do nothing but leave their heritage [sites] to deteriorate, what proactive steps can we do apart from giving it a grade?'
Board member Tony Lam Chung-wai suggested a mechanism similar to the Buildings Department's approach to dangerous blocks in urban areas. Lam, an architect, said the antiquities office could check to see if any private heritage sites were in disrepair and issue a repair order to at least put pressure on the owners, if not actually requiring them to take action. But some members said a statutory order would infringe on private property rights.
'Even if it is not legally binding, officials should work out a similar mechanism because under the current policy, officials are passive and can do nothing until owners come to them with a redevelopment plan,' Lam said.
Another board member, Ng Cho-nam, said there were probably not many cases out of 1,440 heritage sites that were similar to Yu Yuen, where the owners could afford repairs but did not want to do them. 'Can officials approach those celebrity owners and negotiate?' Ng asked.
Tom Ming Kay-chuen of the antiquities office said Yu Yuen was downgraded last year not because of disrepair but because of new criteria under the current grading system, revamped in 2009, which also considers a building's cluster value and rarity apart from historical and architectural merits.
The Development Bureau last week launched a tender for a feasibility study for setting up a statutory heritage trust in Hong Kong.
Dr Lee Ho-yin, of the University of Hong Kong, said the study would identify new sources of income to support heritage conservation.