Architects say it is time to introduce a much-discussed incentive system for owners of listed buildings - which for many represent their only assets.
Transfer of development rights would be the most effective tool to help out many individual owners, the chairman of the Institute of Architects heritage and conservation committee, Eric Lee Chung-ming, said. 'Mere grading of heritage without giving owners a way out is useless. Either it will speed up acquisition and demolition, or owners who don't know how to deal with their properties will just leave them to deteriorate.'
A grade three townhouse in Sai Ying Pun was a case in point, he said. There was no way to save it from demolition as there was no statutory protection for graded buildings. In such a case, as with other shophouses in Central and Sham Shui Po, where the sites were small, owners should be entitled to sell the development rights to developers.
Those developers would be able to acquire these rights and transfer them to other land they held, with the historic building being kept or partially preserved depending on its heritage value. If developers owned the heritage sites themselves, they should be permitted to transfer the residual building density to other sites they owned.
The mechanism was widely used in the United States, Canada and Taiwan, in contrast to the United Kingdom and Singapore, where public or private heritage trusts were relied on to acquire buildings.
'The transfer mechanism is more suitable for our society, where private property rights are expected to be highly respected and where land has great redevelopment pressure,' Mr Lee said. 'Acquiring heritage blocks with public money should be a last resort.'
The fact that all the city's 86 declared monuments were owned by the government reflected to some extent the absence of incentives for private conservation, he said.
The Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance was placed under review when the Home Affairs Bureau was in charge of heritage policy, which triggered a discussion on the transfer system. But the government had reservations about it because of technical problems. The Development Bureau indicated it would not review the legislation when it took over the policy. 'Without legislative changes there will be no long-term heritage policy,' Mr Lee said.