• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 11:40pm
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 1:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 1:26am

Government planners are ruining Hong Kong


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

The plan to turn Des Voeux Road into a pedestrian and tram precinct is one of the most imaginative urban planning schemes to emerge in Hong Kong for some time. So congratulations to the Hong Kong Institute, the Civic Exchange and others involved in the project.

Let's hope the government buys into the idea and proceeds with it. But it is the government that will be the main sticking point with this. So many projects and proposals are shuffled around numerous departments for years in a kind of bureaucratic "pass the project" game or spend years in a limbo known as "public consultation".

It has become apparent over the past few years that it is very difficult to get anyone in the civil service to stick their necks out and say, "this is a good idea - lets do it".

It is true some good projects do make it through the gauntlet of government bureaucracy. The pedestrianisation of Stanley was achieved within about 18 months from inception to conclusion. However, that was some years ago and as we have remarked before, Hong Kong is choking on its bureaucracy, so we are not expecting rapid progress on this.

We have only to look at the harbour to see what a mess our planners have made of it. Take a stroll from the central ferry piers east towards the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

If you're feeling meditative then you've come to the right place because you can brood undisturbed by others, because hardly anyone goes there. How this could have become such a dead area on the edge of one of the world's finest harbours is barely conceivable in what is supposed to be Asia's World City. It is a monument to the awful governance and planning that pervades this city.

Right in the middle of this stretch of prime waterfront we come across a fenced-off eyesore which extends for 150 metres blocking the view. This is the area reserved for the PLA pier. This will be there for some time as we know our civil servants are terrified of doing anything they think will offend the central government.

As for facilities along this stretch of waterfront there is one paltry kiosk. Since this area is deemed "open space" it is run by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department which is prohibited from setting up commercial operations though kiosks are allowed. It is hard to imagine any other so-called World City so badly screwing up prime waterfront within walking distance of the central business district. It is a wasted opportunity.

Not content with producing the most boring harbour front of any world city, the so called Urban Renewal Authority is busy flattening older areas with character, diversity and street life, and erecting sterile high rise towers. This is to be the fate of the area taking in Graham Street and Peel Street, near Central, an interesting location filled with diverse activity and interesting street life. But the people have been paid compensation and will move out. There ought to be a balance between large-scale development and smaller low-rise development.

What Hong Kong needs in these older areas is regeneration - which maintains communities - not tycoon-led redevelopment which kills them. But our government doesn't see it like that. Anywhere which isn't built up to its allowable plot ratio should be redeveloped - a game which brings in revenue for the government and profits for developers.

So why is this happening? In our opinion it is because the civil service has got out of control. They all have a vested interest in keeping this process going. It keeps them in jobs and pensions and maintains their control over the territory. Years ago some 10 new towns were built and this was achieved without a development bureau or a planning department. Now we have all these departments and thousands more civil servants and we can't even produce a decent harbour frontage.

The Hong Kong government has become a victim of the silo effect, where everybody works away within their own departments furthering their own interests at the expense of the community at large. Nobody is able to sit back and take a sensible view of what's going on.

If this kind of development continues we are going to end up with a bland undifferentiated city with all the interest and diversity sucked out of it by the relentless march of the plot ratio planners. So here's to the Des Voeux Road project but we're not holding our breath.

Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com


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John Adams
Mr Winn, This is one the most important columns you have ever written.
Yes ! Des Voeux Road should become a pedestrian/ tram precinct ( and I'm sure Mr Des Voeux would roll with delight in his grave to even dream of such a wonderful thing)
So why not also do the same with Johnston Road ? It's a sleepy , slow-driving road which mates North and South Wanchai ( OK - grant a single-lane / goods-only lane / no Tycoon cars for Fook Lam Moon/ in addition to the tram lines )
We have these wonderful old districts still wonderfully ALIVE !
But the govt aka the URA is dead-bent on killing them.
Witness the awful new (whatever is the name of the tycoon-monstrosity that was Wedding Card Street? ) THING.
Awful - just AWFUL !
Wanchai South of Hennessy Road is a truly snap-shot of the REAL indigenous HK. There are shops there in the back streets that sell everything from coconuts to hand-machined brass fittings, and everything possible in the world besides in between, from fresh meat and veggie markets to computers to air tickets to bazaars to whatever. I doubt if there's anything you cannot buy there except a grand piano.
But the govt seems dead-set on killing the whole area and donating it to the tycoons and Prada-buying tourists !?!
Heaven help us !
What we've been losing is diversity. The replacement of Wedding Street with a monolith is rather like ploughing the rainforest for endless miles of soybeans, nothing left to delight the senses.
Well said Howard! No doubt the government that you and I pay for will have an appropriate response
Great observations. The air in Des Voeux Road is terrible given the canyon effect of the tall buildings on each side of the road. This proposal would be good for HK but as you say our civil service kills any decent proposals with the dead hand of bureaucracy.
More likely an inappropriate response - but don't hold your breath, it will take at least a year...
The civil service worked fine until it was screwed up, as you say,by the layers of competing bureaucracy placed on top of them in the form of politicised policy secretaries and their minions.
The question is how can we change the bureaucracy and fast? We know that it is stifling Hong Kong. "Asia's World City" is a joke and has been for years. Hong Kong has lost its vibrancy (a large moving population and lots of lights does not represent vibrancy). Without a strategic plan and vision (implemented fast, not subject to consultant after consultant reports) to rejuvenate this city fast, it will just become worse and worse and the social malaise that has set in over the last few years will become permanent.
Excellent article. Planners and tycoons go hand in hand (or hand in pocket) in Hong Kong. If the government encouraged smaller developments, districts could be upgraded and still retain character, plus allowing smaller developers to thrive and perhaps challenge the big guys.
However the government wants its land premium and the senior civil servants want their directorships and post-retirement consulting business...
The normal solution to everything in HK is: building another high rise with another shopping mall. There are so many sites in HK where nothing has been made out of it in all the years. And it is not just the government to blame here. It is also the people and the mentality of the Hong Kong society. If there is no Government order and no Tycoon seeing profit, nothing will happen.
That old and dusty title "Asia's world City" is just a blatant over-estimation of Hong Kong itself and describes more a "wannabe" than a status.
A bigger civil service means...more jobs!! That's been the government plan to create jobs all along!
And a slap to the face of Mr. Winn for referring to HK as "Asia's World City" above...




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