The aborted sale of Dragon Garden to a developer yesterday was a victory for conservation. Credit should go to those members of the family who have lobbied so hard for the preservation of the Chinese-style landscaped garden.
Yet, while there is no immediate fear of the garden being knocked down, it is imperative that the government expedites its review of conservation policy to put an end to the emergence of similar rows in future. The review is one that has been dragging on for years, and it is time it was wrapped up.
Admittedly, the delay has to do with the complexities of the issues involved. Preserving private properties of heritage value is a delicate matter. Private property ownership is a fundamental right that we trample at our peril. However high the conservation value of a private property is, its owner's right to put it to its best use, subject to relevant laws, must be respected. Where those laws seek to put limits on what he can do with his property, the owner must be adequately compensated for any losses he may suffer from those constraints. To date, Hong Kong's conservation policy has basically tried to sidestep this critical issue. The government tries to conserve, but does not take over ownership of properties worth preserving. That is understandable as no government has pockets deep enough to buy up every property worth preserving.
The policy's failings are best illustrated by the case of Kam Tong Hall, a stately residence in Mid-Levels built in the 1910s. It has been classified as a grade II-listed historical building. But that did not stop its owners from getting permission to knock it down in 2002. It was saved from demolition only after officials managed to persuade the owners to change their minds following a public outcry.
Indeed, over the years, a handful of old buildings of high heritage value - Ohel Leah Synagogue in Mid-Levels, King Yin Lei in Stubbs Road and now Dragon Garden - have all been saved from the wreckers' hammers by lobbying campaigns. However, as there is no guarantee that such ad hoc efforts will work every time, a new approach is needed.
Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping rightly pointed out in April, in answer to a question in the Legislative Council, that the government's current policy had a major flaw. It provided insufficient economic incentives to encourage owners of built heritage to take active measures to protect their buildings.
In the Dragon Garden case, a major problem the owners face is the annual $1 million bill for maintaining the property. It is not going to go away by designating it as a monument. The solution lies in allowing the property to generate a continuous flow of income to finance its maintenance. Presumably, if limited commercial activities were allowed at Dragon Garden after it was designated a monument, the proceeds could be used to cover the costs of upkeep. That would require modifications to the site's statutory land use and the introduction of a more flexible conservation framework.
In Britain, the National Trust is a good model of how the non-governmental sector can work wonders in preserving a country's natural and cultural heritage. The charitable organisation founded by three philanthropists in 1895 now cares for 248,000 hectares of countryside, 1,120km of coastline and more than 200 buildings and gardens of outstanding interest and importance. It is independent of government, and relies on donations, revenue from operating restaurants, shops and holiday homes at protected properties, and fees from its 3.4 million members.
Perhaps, conservation activists should persuade the owners of Dragon Garden and other heritage properties to set up a foundation in Hong Kong similar to the National Trust. By vesting their properties with this body and lobbying the government to introduce rules to facilitate their sustainable preservation, they would be launching a great cause that would bring lasting fame to themselves and incalculable riches to future generations.