Urgent need for Hong Kong conservation trust

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:56am

There is increasing awareness of the importance of heritage conservation in Hong Kong. Moves to establish a statutory conservation trust in Hong Kong must be speeded up.

In his 2007-08 policy address, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced a range of initiatives on heritage conservation.

At that time, the government considered that a heritage trust would be a long-term goal and would be pursued only after other heritage conservation initiatives were in place.

A conservation trust creates a fiduciary relationship with the trustees to manage the trust properties for the benefit of particular beneficiaries in accordance with the purpose of the trust. Mere creation of a heritage trust is insufficient. It must be backed up by proper legislation so that the powers of the trustees are defined and the spending of the fund can be properly regulated.

In England, the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or National Beauty, known simply as the National Trust, is a private association incorporated by various acts of Parliament, namely the National Trust Acts (1907-1971). Under the acts, apart from allowing the trust to acquire and own lands of historic interest, they also grant it the unique statutory power to declare an "inalienable" right to these lands (which is not present in Hong Kong).

This means the land cannot be sold, mortgaged or even compulsorily purchased by the government without a debate and vote in Parliament.

It has been suggested that the reason why so many landowners in England have been willing to give their land to the trust, or leave their land to it when they die, is because the trust has this right and will preserve the land.

The act also gives the National Trust power to make by-laws to regulate movements on its land, thereby protecting heritage buildings from being damaged by human activities.

Above all, the trust is an independent charity and not an institution controlled by government and its source of income comes largely from members' subscriptions.

According to a government press release in June, the Development Bureau commissioned a consultancy study at the end of 2011 to investigate the feasibility, framework and implementation of setting up a statutory heritage trust in Hong Kong.

I would submit that there is an urgent need for such a conservation tool, given that numerous landmarks have been torn down and we have no time to lose if we want to save what remains.

Yvonne Leung, Central