Lessons should be learned from TST waterfront fiasco

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 5:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 5:07am

As the government tries to diffuse the controversy over the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront development, there is a sense that the cart has been put before the horse. Going into damage-control mode, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department has offered to put back the signing of the contract with New World Development on the planned extension and to consult the public on the project details. Why did this not happen in the first place?

The U-turn followed a public outcry and the possibility of a court battle raised by some activists. It remains unclear whether the legal challenge can be averted, which may effectively hold up the project for an unknown period. But if officials can demonstrate sincerity in listening to people's views and make room for changes, it could help take the heat off.

That officials had failed to sense there could be trouble is baffling. This is, after all, not the first time the government has come under fire for awarding business deals without an open tender. Cyberport and Heritage 1881 are clear examples. The TST extension project involves complex issues like public access, land use and business interests. Yet it is to be awarded to a non-profit making company set up by New World Development without going through the normal competitive bidding procedure. The approach sits oddly with the government's undertaking to provide a level playing field for all businesses. The lack of prior consultation also breaches public expectations of accountability and transparency.

The scope of the public consultation will be known within days. It would not be complete without giving the option of putting the project to an open tender. There has been a suggestion that the government is not wrong in partnering with New World again, as the existing Avenue of Stars has been built and managed by the developer under the same formula since 2004. But that does not mean it should get the right to further develop the site automatically. The public consultation must give people ample room to explore the best way forward. It would be meaningless to consult the public if the fundamentals are not up for change.

The fiasco could have been avoided had officials adhered to the principle of providing a level playing field for all and consulted the public. We hope the consultation will show that the government has truly learned its lesson and gives the public a genuine say on how to develop the harbourfront.