What price should we put on heritage preservation?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2011, 12:00am


The decision of the Antiquities Advisory Board (which I chair) to throw its full support behind the government to declare Ho Tung Gardens on The Peak a monument, thus protected from redevelopment, prompted Post columnist Jake van der Kamp to call me out of my depth. He and others believe the building is not worth saving. Historians and architects on the board argue powerfully that, taken as a whole - the structure, gardens, location and historical context - the site should be kept.

It was not that long ago that the old Hong Kong Club and the Tiger Balm Garden could disappear and few people complained. The new community awareness of heritage issues has forced officials into a difficult position between potentially angry public opinion and the fundamental principal of the right to hold private property.

With no official mechanism or strategy, it is tough to find a balance. CLP Power sacrificed potential profit by making concessions in its plan to save part of its old headquarters in Kowloon and build adjacent high-rises. Yet opponents are still outraged. In the case of the semi-demolished King Yin Lei mansion (as with Ho Tung Gardens) the owner was planning perfectly legal redevelopment of the property. Government intervention - a last-minute offer of a land swap for the owner - was in many ways heavy handed, but driven with potentially angry public opinion in mind.

Whether Ho Tung Gardens deserves protection or not, more privately owned sites like it exist, and the public will want at least some preserved. Understandably, politicians and others are calling for a firm policy rather than the current case-by-case approach. But have they considered what it will involve?

The fact is that, if a site is to be saved from redevelopment, the owner will have to be compensated. Since we cannot rely on private initiatives, this requires public wealth in some form or another - money that could be spent on, say, schools or hospitals.

And that assumes that, as with King Yin Lei, the owner accepts a deal. In the case of Ho Tung Gardens, the owner does not want to co-operate. She can apply for a judicial review to challenge the decision to declare her property a monument, or she could simply sue the government for compensation.

If that happens, it would be interesting to see what the courts decide - especially on what sort of compensation would be appropriate. This would set a precedent and could help politicians, activists and the community weigh up the costs and benefits of heritage preservation. It is easy for lawmakers to demand a government policy and a system, but the real question is: would they approve the funding for it?

It could be a declared policy to transfer development rights, say through land swaps, which raises the challenge of where to find the land or permit the extra floor space. Or it could involve the government simply buying protected properties, though this requires the approval of funds by the Legislative Council. Either way, it would cost money, which ultimately comes from voters and taxpayers. And, any element of compulsion involved in getting owners to accept a deal would have to comply with the Basic Law's protection of private property rights.

Designing and agreeing on such a policy will be a challenge. How many people would agree in practice, for example, to spend HK$3 billion - nearly 10 per cent of annual public health expenditure - to buy Ho Tung Gardens?

Let me end by opening an even bigger can of worms. Why is a small plot of land worth so much anyway? The answer is that our redevelopment and overall planning policies (like restrictions on new buildings' height and density) are looser than in many places, and advantageous to property owners. You can argue that the potential market value of land is inflated. Hence the huge incentive to knock down heritage sites in the first place.

When it comes to tackling this, and the various interests concerned, all of us - advisory board members, officials and the whole community - are probably out of our depth.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils