Green belts preserve a delicate balance between our built environment and what remains of the natural environment. Given the density of urban development and the stresses it imposes on quality of life, they form a precious buffer that is not to be given up lightly.
But the Town Planning Board can grant exceptions. One that came to light last week was a proposal that would pave the way for declaring the historic King Yin Lei mansion an official monument and saving it from demolition. It is a swap of an adjacent green-belt site for residential development by the mansion's owner, agreed between the government and the Antiquities Advisory Board.
The government claims this will not disturb the natural or visual environment. The head of a conservation group has described it as a 'win-win' solution to a conflict between the rights of the owner and heritage preservation. It remains to be seen how much of the mansion's original appearance, defaced by demolition works, can be restored. Significantly, the proposal is a milestone in meeting community expectations that future development is balanced with preservation of the city's remaining heritage.
In principle it is the right way forward. But we need to ensure such swaps are appropriate and reasonable. Balancing conservation and development, property rights and heritage protection is a complex issue that remains to be resolved. While in this case a way that seems to have pleased every stakeholder has been found, the city still needs a conservation strategy implemented by a body with the power and resources to protect and preserve our history. Where a heritage issue is financially or environmentally controversial, the strategy should provide for the public to be consulted.
Meanwhile, the government has released a list of 34 historic sites it owns that are neither official monuments nor graded by the Antiquities Advisory Board. This is to pave the way for a heritage assessment programme for public works. The initiative is welcome, as it will help raise public awareness of such potentially vulnerable heritage. But it is even more important that a strategy for preserving privately own heritage properties be formulated.