New harbour authority must reflect public interest

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 2:40am

There is no question that the people of Hong Kong own Victoria Harbour. The Protection of the Harbour Ordinance makes that clear. But it has never been clear who is ultimately responsible for managing and safeguarding their most precious natural asset. This has been left to various government departments with administrative power over one thing or another. One result is that the rightful owners have had little say in the loss of half of it to reclamation over the years and the loss of access to the waterfront. Two months ago Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying endorsed the suggestion that the existing Harbourfront Commission, an advisory body that has succeeded in improving access, be replaced by a harbour authority to oversee management, planning, design and development. In his policy address last week, he was as good as his word, pledging to back the authority with financial support, understood to be in the billions of dollars.

This is what a growing public chorus, including this newspaper and the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, has been calling for over many years. First there will be a six-month public consultation beginning in March in which all stakeholders including district councils can have their say. But the Post has learned that Kai Tak, Tsim Sha Tsui and the northern shore of Hong Kong island around Quarry Bay and North Point are likely to be the first areas to be revamped by the new authority to enhance public access and enjoyment.

This is good news. The government still owns 70 per cent of the harbourfront, but the lack of a senior co-ordinating agency has had regrettable consequences. Apart from reckless reclamation, insensitive planning and development has made the shoreline increasingly inaccessible. Attempts at improvements have been frustrated by divided responsibility. As a result, Hong Kong has not yet learned how best to integrate the diverse elements of a living, working harbour with enhanced public access, amenity and enjoyment.

Government support for establishing the authority, however, does not yet mean that respect for the public interest can be taken for granted, or that the coming consultation is a mere formality. There remains the question of genuine public representation on the authority to ensure the right balance between government, commercial and public interests. Better still, the chief executive should give an unequivocal assurance on this point now.