Former judge says Hong Kong's town planning process is unfair
Those that take the time and effort to object to planning applications at the Town Planning Board have long been angered by the unfairness of the process. It is routinely criticised for rubber-stamping developer applications, no matter how awful their impact on the community.
But it will be interesting to see how the board reacts to an objection letter by retired High Court judge William Waung Sik-ying. He has recently become a member of the Kennedy Road Protection Group, which has had to stir itself after a respite of five years following the recent planning application by Hopewell Holdings for what it calls "minor refinements and enhancements" to its Hopewell Centre II project in Wan Chai's Queen's Road East that extends up to Kennedy Road. The group had fought Hopewell's plans for more than 10 years because vehicular access to this monster development was to be through Kennedy Road.
The project has been before the board five times in one form or another since 1994. In 2004, Hopewell applied to build a 93-storey hotel with convention and exhibition facilities, which was rejected by the board and again when it was reviewed. A subsequent appeal was withdrawn when a deal over a scaled -down project was hammered out with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was development secretary in 2008, and approved by the board in 2009. However, to the dismay of residents, Hopewell is now trying to reinsert the bits of the plan it lost under the Lam deal.
Enter Waung, who moved to Kennedy Road a few years ago and has now become embroiled in the planning process and does not like what he sees. He does not like the piecemeal way in which Hopewell has proceeded, describing it to Lai See as "the salami slice approach to planning. You get what you want one piece at a time".
He wrote to the board that Hopewell's approach was a "vexatious abuse of process" in resubmitting similar plans, which the board has ruled against. He maintains that given the time and cost involved in the board's applications by government departments and the public, successive applications by the same developer should be rejected unless there was an exceptional change in circumstances.
He also criticises Hopewell for the lack of details in its plans and for "the totally unacceptable practice of being indecently vague again and again and … the frequent promises to give fuller details later".
Waung is also unhappy with the way Hong Kong's town planning process is structured.
"The whole town planning process in Hong Kong is a classroom example of inequality of arms, with the developer having the huge resources, with professionals working for long periods to prepare and advance the development project, but on the other hand with ordinary persons in the community, generally in isolation, without the necessary resources or professional assistance to be able to properly scrutinise the development application within the short time scale provided to respond. In reality, the developers prevail practically every time on the uneven playing field of town planning in Hong Kong," he says.
"The ordinance which purports to advance and protect the community interests, in fact, gives to the developers the weapon and the means to destroy the protection of community interests."
He says it is incumbent on the board to protect the community's interests since, under the statutory scheme, only the developer applicant has the exclusive right of review and appeal to the appeal board. Objectors do not.
Waung's letter is an important critique of the process, which the board should read carefully.
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