Antiquities board launches public review of heritage policy

Consultation looks into how to conserve historic buildings after failure to save Ho Tung Gardens

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 5:19pm

The Antiquities Advisory Board is asking Hongkongers nine sets of questions in a two-month consultation to review the city's policy on the conservation of heritage buildings.

Board chairman Andrew Lam Siu-lo said the government-appointed board understood that the issues were controversial and it would maintain an open mind in listening to the public's views.

Among the questions is whether stricter laws should be passed to restrict private owners of graded historic buildings from demolishing or altering them, and how wide the scope of any such legislation should be.

At present, only declared monuments are subject to statutory protection while historic buildings under the three-tier grading system are not.

Another set of questions asks whether public money should be spent to buy historic buildings from private owners.

The review was triggered by a debate over the fate of Ho Tung Gardens, which was demolished last year. Attempts to save the historic mansion - built by influential local businessman Sir Robert Hotung on The Peak in 1927 - failed after its owner, Ho Min-kwan, a granddaughter of Sir Robert, rejected all proposals offered by the government, including a land swap, and sought HK$7 billion for the property.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his annual address called for a review of policy on privately owned historic buildings after the controversy over Ho Tung Gardens in 2012.

A government-appointed consultancy suggested in a report last year that a self-financing heritage trust be set up to fund maintenance schemes and work with non-profit groups to revitalise government-owned heritage sites. But the report also said the idea "requires consensus among stakeholders".

The consultation paper released yesterday took no stance on whether such a trust should be created, but sought the public's views on it. It also raised the question of whether a "point-line-plane" approach should be adopted in town planning for conservation of heritage buildings - meaning a particular street or even a whole district could be conserved and wider restrictions imposed on development.

Under the existing policy, conservation targets are mainly individual buildings.

"We would like to have a thorough discussion on the issue of economic incentives provided for private property owners," said Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po, who oversees heritage policies.

Another question is whether developable land should be given to compensate private owners who decide to sell their heritage buildings to the government. Chan did not give a timetable for the review when he announced the launch of the public consultation yesterday.

Katty Law Ngar-ning, a member of concern group Heritage Watch, said the questions in the consultation paper were long-standing issues. "What is more important is whether the government will have the will to carry out reforms," she said.