Heritage policy must balance conservation and development

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2013, 2:57am

The public can be excused if they are confused about the government's commitment to heritage conservation. From the controversial U-turns on Government Hill and the historic Ho Tung Gardens to the choice of appointees on an advisory panel, there appears to be a lack of consistency and priority in preserving our diminishing heritage. Admittedly the city's appetite for new development makes striking a balance difficult. But conservation awareness has taken root. If Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is sincere about doing a better job, more effort is needed.

The new batch of appointments to the much-criticised Antiquities Advisory Board has opened the window for the government to boost public confidence in its work. Unfortunately the focus has been skewed towards the members' connections with the chief executive. At least four of the 12 new faces in the 23-member panel supported Leung during the chief executive election. New chairman Andrew Lam Siu-lo, an incumbent who replaced Bernard Chan, helped Leung draft his platforms on lands and urban planning.

The perceived close ties have understandably raised concerns about whether the board's independence will be compromised. That is why it is important for the new members to prove they will work according to established rules rather than the government's preference. Some of the new appointees are indeed veteran surveyors and planners with heritage expertise. It is good to hear that Lam has pledged to follow the standing mechanism. The new members should be given a chance to prove themselves and they should be judged by their decisions, not perceived connections.

Wrapping up his six-year stint at the helm, Chan rightly called for a debate on how much the public is willing to pay for conservation. A case in point is Ho Tung Gardens, which would have cost taxpayers HK$7 billion in return for the owner's co-operation to drop a lucrative residential redevelopment. With 1,444 heritage buildings at present, how to better handle built heritage in private hands will be the immediate challenge for the government and the board.

Hong Kong has long moved away from the era when historic buildings were recklessly flattened to make room for glossy skyscrapers or shopping malls. Leung has vowed to strike a proper balance between development and conservation. This has to be the unequivocal direction in future.