Call for heritage fund to conserve city's old buildings

Consultancy proposes a heritage trust to help protect the city’s old buildings, but dodges the question of where the money should come from

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 5:56am

A consultancy has dodged the ticklish question of whether a statutory heritage trust it has proposed should spend government money to acquire private historical buildings.

The report by GHK, submitted to the Legislative Council yesterday, said only that the question "requires consensus among stakeholders".

The proposal came under fire from critics who said the trust had too few powers and not enough money.

The study is part of a heritage policy review launched by the Antiquities Advisory Board ahead of a public consultation scheduled to take place in the middle of the year.

The consultancy began by highlighting the existing problems in the city's building conservation efforts.

"The protection of private property rights enshrined in the Basic Law, combined with the narrow scope of legislative framework for heritage conservation, makes it difficult to carry through conservation policies in respect of privately owned graded buildings," the report said, suggesting a statutory body chaired by a non-government person be set up in three years.

The narrow scope of legislative framework for heritage conservation ... makes it difficult to carry through conservation policies in respect of privately owned graded buildings

The body would take over the duty of overseeing two programmes - one that finances the maintenance of private historic buildings, and another that engages non-profit bodies to revitalise government-owned heritage sites. The body would have the task of public education.

On acquiring private buildings or cash compensation for owners, the report said a trust was unlikely to "address fully the complexities involved". The trust would not be responsible forpolicymaking or heritage grading of sites, which would still rest with the government and the Antiquities Advisory Board.

It would be self-financing, with 65 per cent of income coming from investments and the rest from rents, fundraising, membership fees and donations. To receive HK$45 million investment income a year, assuming a 5 per cent return, the seed money required would be HK$900 million, the report said.

Antiquities board member Tony Lam Chung-wai said the consultancy was only suggesting outsourcing some government duties to the trust.

"The trust has limited powers and financial resources," said Lam, who called for a reform of the town planning system.

Former board member Ng Cho-nam said HK$900 million was too little to acquire heritage buildings.

"Very few of the revitalised historic buildings can be financially self-sustainable, and the insufficient seed money would tie the hands of the trust," he said.

The review follows several high-profile rescues of private heritage sites in the city.

In 2004, the government acquired Kom Tong Hall on Castle Road with HK$53 million and turned it into a museum.

Another board member, Philip Liao Yi-kang, said the government should consult the public on whether the trust should acquire private buildings.

The HK$900 million would be barely sufficient for the purpose, he said, given the past cases of King Yin Lei - the defaced mansion saved by a land swap - and Ho Tung Gardens, the Peak mansion which was let go after its owner demanded HK$7 billion for the property.