Hong Kong must free its district councils to spearhead local improvements

Paul Zimmerman outlines proposals to improve district council administration that need no legislative change, only political will in the form of some technical, policy and funding support

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 5:33pm

In his 2013 policy address, the chief executive put forward the concept of "addressing district issues at the local level and capitalising on local opportunities". The government announced it would study "how to enhance the functions of district councils and enable members to play a more active role in district affairs, and facilitate the co-ordination of government departments in service delivery at the district level by the district officers".

Since then, pilot schemes have been introduced, giving Sham Shui Po and Yuen Long district councils decision-making power to steer support for street sleepers, to direct support for private buildings with upkeep problems, and to identify locations where shops extend onto public space, where bicycles are parked illegally and where mosquitoes breed. People may be surprised that these were not the job of district councillors already. Needless to say, these rather elementary schemes have proven to be successful and will be extended to all districts.

In enhancing district administration, the government is keen that changes are without significant policy repercussions or territory-wide implications. Schemes also should not involve matters under the Town Planning Ordinance, public works projects, legislative changes or law enforcement actions.

Even with these limitations in mind, there are several measures which can significantly enhance the relevance of district councils in delivering more liveable districts, including: the publication of a district annual report; the publication of a district plan; the envisioning of district urban enhancement plans with the community; and the setting up of a districts development office to expediently realise opportunities identified in all districts.

The first three of these proposals are administrative measures which can be brought in without any legislative change. District officers can implement these with policy support from the Home Affairs Bureau, technical support from relevant departments, a small increase in head count, and some community involvement and funding.

The production of a district annual report and a district plan would present known information about the district and improve efficiency and consistency in addressing district issues. They would also give residents - and other government departments - a clear overview of the major issues and developments in each district.

The annual report would cover existing and planned projects and services, including those related to development, infrastructure, transport, open space and education. As the reports would be produced each year, they would over time show the progress, or lack thereof, and empower the district council in pushing departments for more timely follow-up.

The district plan would visualise information from different departments, including existing and planned infrastructure, facilities, traffic aids, land status, zoning, outdoor seating, shop extensions, and so on. Most importantly, such a plan would show the boundaries of management responsibility of different departments over government land. With this, district councils would no longer have to raise time-wasting inquiries with the Lands Department just to identify who is responsible.

A district urban enhancement plan would build on the successful pilot scheme for urban renewal, led by the Development Bureau in Kowloon City. This process generated community proposals for redevelopment and revitalisation, as well as interventions to shape the district character, revitalise heritage, develop walking trails, enhance waterfront areas and improve district connectivity. This process of working with the community, professionals and government departments to develop master plans for each district would be a tremendous resource for improving the administration and governance of each district.

The fourth proposal requires funding. Setting up a Districts Development Office builds on the success of the Kowloon East Development Office and would go a long way in expediently realising opportunities identified in other districts.

The multi-disciplinary Kowloon East Development Office was established by the Development Bureau to steer, supervise, oversee and monitor the land use review, enhanced urban design, and improvement to connectivity and the associated infrastructure in Kowloon East. The 2015-2016 budget of this office is HK$31 million.

This set-up has proven to be quite effective - it is well funded, located in the district it operates in, and, as it is part of the bureau, it has strong policy support. The Development Bureau could expand this office and cover other districts including Kowloon City and provide them with the same level of support in "addressing district issues at the local level and capitalising on local opportunities".

For those who operate businesses, the above proposals may not appear rocket science. And indeed they are not. Nor do they require significant resources or legislative changes. All we need to enhance district administration is vision and determination. Each district council would readily accept the four proposals to enhance the administration of their district.

Paul Zimmerman is a Pok Fu Lam district councillor and CEO of Designing Hong Kong