Statutory harbour body still the goal
How times have changed. A decade ago, government efforts to fill in yet more of Victoria Harbour would have prompted outrage and the launching of a legal challenge. Last week, two stalwarts of the protection movement, Christine Loh Kung-wai and Winston Chu Ka-sun, announced that their mission had been accomplished, declaring yesterday's Walk for the Harbour would be the last. Hong Kong has much to thank them and their supporters for - moral as well as legal obligations now prevent authorities from doing what had previously taken little more than the stroke of a pen. But the squeeze on land and the pressure for expansion mean that watchdogs can never completely lower their guards and it is clear that planning and management would be best served with the setting up of a statutory harbour authority.
Loh and Chu, through their Society for the Protection of the Harbour, ensured the creation of the legal basis for ending wholesale reclamation, the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance. For 150 years, filling in the harbour had been an assured driver of development and revenue-earner for the government. Half of it had disappeared by the time activists stepped in - as Chu pointed out with deserved pride, only 30 hectares of a proposed 584 were now being lost. That does not mean that there is no longer a place for reclamation, though.
Energies are now firmly being directed towards ensuring that our city makes intelligent use of its most precious natural asset. At the centre of that effort is public accessibility, the focus since the Court of Final Appeal ruling in 2004 that prevented the government from reclaiming the harbour if there was no 'overriding public need'. The year-old advisory body, the Harbourfront Commission, has come up with many worthy ideas for design and use and a number are being included in reshaping the Central and Wan Chai waterfronts. Gradually, Hong Kong is being given access, through pedestrian walkways, parks, sitting out areas and a cycling path.
There are bountiful possibilities, but the lack of an overall design plan and insufficient co-ordination among government agencies makes for many uncertainties. Hong Kong has not yet learned how best to integrate container terminals, ferry piers, fish markets, places for pleasure boats and water sports into harbourfront enhancement.
Water quality has improved markedly as treatment works push ahead - last month's cross-harbour swimming competition, the first in 33 years, amply proved that. But sustainability of our land resources remains a question mark, one that will hang over the harbour until it is clearly answered in government policies. Putting planning and development of the harbourfront under a separate legal authority would create solid foundations and give lasting assurance.