Members of the Antiquities Advisory Board - the body charged with advising which old sites should be kept as monuments and which are dispensable - say they lack expertise in the field and rely heavily on advice from the government.
The comments came amid controversy over two widely differing reports on Jessville, a 77-year-old mansion that was declared a proposed monument last year only to be downgraded to a Grade Three historical building this year. They also came just months after the board was revamped in an effort to make it more transparent and credible.
Board members said they had not realised the differences between the two reports on Jessville and relied heavily on the professional advice of the Antiquities and Monuments Office in assessing the heritage values of a site.
'Board members are laymen, not experts in the field,' one senior member said. 'We are appointed so that people from different strata are represented. But our judgment is to a great extent influenced by the advice of the Antiquities and Monuments Office.'
Jessville was declared a proposed monument after the owners applied to demolish it but they later agreed to keep it as clubhouse for an adjacent residential development. It is understood that they expected it to be declared a monument.
Its downgrading was announced the same day as another controversial heritage site, the deliberately defaced King Yin Lei mansion in Stubbs Road, was given monument status.
Sources close to the Antiquities and Monuments Office said the two reports submitted to the Legislative Council on Jessville were written by policy bureaus in charge of built heritage - the Home Affairs Bureau in April 2007 and the Development Bureau this year.
Antiquities Advisory Board member Greg Wong Chak-yan said it was acceptable that the government had initially overstated the case about Jessville, resulting in it being declared a proposed monument last year, because it was at risk of being torn down.
'The demolition procedure had to be called to a halt urgently,' Mr Wong said. 'The government had to convince the board members of a need to declare it a provisional monument to buy time for inspection.'
Meanwhile there were calls for heritage report procedures to be overhauled to make them more credible and transparent.
'A professional report should have stated clearly the degrees of importance concerning various aspects of a heritage site, such as whether its architectural style is of local, national, regional or world class,' said Lee Ho-yin, director of the architectural conservation programme at the University of Hong Kong.
'The reports which only mention whether a site is rare or important are insufficient to inform the public or a decision-making body of the extent of rarity or importance of that site.'
Albert Lai Kwong-tak, chairman of the People's Council for Sustainable Development, said an independent statutory body with the authority to declare monuments should be set up to replace the Antiquities Advisory Board to enhance transparency of the assessment procedure.
He said the Antiquities and Monuments Office should also be made independent from the government.
At present, the Secretary for Development has the power to declare a site a monument after consultation with the board. The Antiquities and Monuments Office, under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, is the professional adviser to the government and the board.
Then and now
Now the government's assessment of Jessville has changed
Significance of founder
'The influence of William Tam as a social leader was rooted in different spectra of the community'
'Elaborate and distinct in design, decoration and craftsmanship
'Epitome to illustrate the building technology and styles in pre-war Hong Kong'
'A cultural landmark which reminds people of the role played by the Tam family as members of the Chinese elite class'
'An important illustration of the history of social development and urbanisation of Hong Kong in the early to mid-20th century'
Significance of founder
'The influence of William Tam in society was short-lived'
'The historic value of the building is limited to the lifetime of William Tam'
'The interior decor is not of extraordinary style'
'The building is an example demonstrating the eclecticism in the local architectural design during the 20th century, but it is not an extraordinary one'
'It does not arouse public sentiment and is physically segregated from the neighbourhood'
'Possesses some heritage value, but is not up to the required high threshold that justifies its declaration as a monument'