More pressing matters push back Hong Kong heritage consultation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 4:13am

A review of heritage conservation will take a back seat while hot-button issues such as waste charging, electoral reform and the development of the northeastern New Territories hog the limelight.

The delay is likely to hold up reforms for months, as government advisers seek to avoid overwhelming the public with too many consultation papers.

An exercise to solicit views on how to preserve private historic buildings was to have started by the end of last year.

First it was postponed to January. Now the Antiquities Advisory Board aims to roll out its consultation document in the middle of the year.

"We have now decided to insert an additional stage into the review and will launch activities such as exhibitions to raise awareness before launching the consultation," board chairman Andrew Lam Siu-lo said.

The review was triggered by the Ho Tung Gardens case. The government and the owner of the grade-one historic mansion on The Peak could not reach an agreement on its preservation and it was torn down in December for redevelopment.

The incident prompted a rethink on how private heritage sites should be conserved, including the possibility of using public money to buy them.

In April the Development Bureau proposed establishing a statutory body to oversee schemes financing the maintenance of heritage buildings.

The recommendation was passed to the board, which grades historic buildings and advises on conservation. Its consultation paper is expected to lay out a series of questions to help decide on principles underpinning heritage policy. These include selection criteria for conserving private buildings, ways to protect them and how much the public is willing to spend on building maintenance.

But Lam said it would be difficult to draw people's attention to heritage conservation at the moment.

He cited the Council for Sustainable Development's consultation on charging for household waste that ended last month, the Town Planning Board's consultation on the northeastern New Territories that ended last week, and the ongoing debate on constitutional reform.

"We are afraid that no one would pay attention to our consultation document if it were published now," he said.

Lam said the board still hoped to finish the consultation within its two-year term, which ends in December.

A similar consultation to review heritage conservation was launched by the Home Affairs Bureau in 2004 but ended without a conclusion.

An expert who helped draft the upcoming consultation paper welcomed the postponement.

"The 2004 consultation was left unattended as bird flu broke out," said Dr Lee Ho-yin, co-founder of the University of Hong Kong's architectural conservation programme. "It was not until 2007 that then chief executive Donald Tsang [Yam-kuen] brought up the issue again in his policy address in light of controversies over the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier.

"We learned the lesson that timing was very important for public discussion of the review."

Lee was confident any reforms would not be held up indefinitely.

Cultural critic Ada Wong Ying-kay did not see the postponement as a big deal. "What is more important is that the government needs an overhaul of Hong Kong's entire cultural policy," Wong said.