Pay heed to the public interest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 1:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 1:13am

It was not much of an issue when the government granted New World Development the exclusive right to build and manage the Avenue of Stars at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront in 2003. But when the same formula was used recently for plans to further develop the area, it quickly escalated into a controversy involving sensitive areas of business interests, land use and public access. The shifting sentiment speak volumes for the changes in people's perceptions over the past decade.

The waterfront is a favourite place for tourists and locals alike. Steps to improve the facilities should therefore be welcomed. The new project involves an eastward extension to Hung Hom to accommodate a food plaza, a film gallery and a performance venue. Dining facilities will also be built at the nearby Salisbury Garden. The area will be closed for three years as a result.

The benefits are unfortunately being overshadowed by issues arising from the development model. Instead of awarding the rights through a competitive bidding process, the government has partnered with New World, which will foot the bill in return for the right to manage the site through a non-profit-making company until 2035. The ultimate management authority rests with the government, along with a management committee and advisory board comprising officials and stakeholders in the community. It must be asked why the project was not put to an open tender. Critics accused the government of colluding with the developer, saying it is tantamount to privatising part of the waterfront. But officials rejected the claims and maintained that the arrangements are in the public interest.

The concerns raised by opponents are understandable. While the project was approved with more conditions, the Town Planning Board was not in a position to rule on the development rights and management issues.

Given the overwhelming opposition, the government needs to explore further ways to ease public worries over business collusion and restrictions to public access. It should also reflect on the partnership approach so as to protect the public interest without discouraging business incentives for development. The controversy underlines the need for more sensitivity in handling development involving public and business interests. Effective measures must also be taken to ease the impact on businesses affected by the extension.