Dollars and sense: for arts hub to succeed, listen to the people
West Kowloon offers the opportunity for synergy and creation of a zone that provides a diverse, quirky and stimulating arts and culture experience
The benefits of arts and culture cannot easily be quantified in facts and figures. The West Kowloon Cultural District, aiming to provide Hong Kong with world-class venues, has therefore at times tangled with controversy. What some people have wanted, others have not, the choices of top appointees have been questioned and cost overruns have been a constant. The revelation that HK$11.7 billion, on top of the HK$21.6 billion already allocated, is needed to complete outstanding projects of phase two and carry out work on the third and final stage, barely surprises.
Cost overruns as a result of increases in wages and construction material have been a feature of most of our city’s major infrastructure projects in recent years. West Kowloon has been caught up in the trend, raising doubts as to whether the third phase, which envisaged theatres and a concert hall, would even go ahead. Further frustrating progress has been complications with the terminus to the high-speed rail line, located beneath part of the site and affecting work above.
Hong Kong is not short of cash; the budget surplus of HK$92.8 billion made that amply clear. But the highly charged political environment has made it difficult for the government to get funding requests approved by the Legislative Council. A number of its projects have been affected as a result of filibustering by pan-democratic lawmakers. To avoid the possibility of a request for more funding being ensnared by politicking, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying put forward a different model in his policy address last month.
The government will hand over land development rights to the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, ensuring it will have sufficient revenue for projects and operations that could run into the tens of billions of dollars in income. There are concerns among some people that this process will circumvent the oversight of lawmakers, opening the door to potential inefficiency, corruption, collusion and cost overruns. For those reasons, transparency and accountability will have to be paramount. The consultation process for all aspects will have to be strictly adhered to and the Legco subcommittee that monitors the district’s projects kept closely informed.
After almost two decades of talk, false starts, wrangling and top-level resignations and most recently, the Palace Museum controversy, public scepticism is high. But buildings are taking shape and the city’s arts groups are eager for further details to be unveiled. West Kowloon offers the opportunity for synergy and creation of a zone that provides a diverse, quirky and stimulating arts and culture experience. For that to happen, the authority has to be fully open about plans and willing to listen to the people it is serving.