Good and bad news about the city's heritage buildings can create confusing perceptions about the government's commitment to conservation. In a welcome "about-face" on the redevelopment plan for the former government headquarters, the new administration has decided that the west wing will not be turned into a commercial tower, as had been decided by its predecessors. Instead, it will be used by the Department of Justice and related bodies. But the bad news is that the new administration has given up on a plan to save an 85-year-old private mansion on The Peak, although it has been graded by monument experts as more important than the government block. The different approaches to the buildings, which are exactly opposite to the previous administration's, reflect a dilemma in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's heritage conservation policy.
Being the residence of Hong Kong's most eminent family in the colonial days, Ho Tung Gardens may be a piece of history worth preserving. The question is how much we are willing to pay for this. Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po said taxpayers might be reluctant to fork out HK$7 billion in return for the owner giving up her redevelopment rights to the 11,520-square-metre site. That the Chinese renaissance style complex will soon be turned into 11 low-rise residential blocks is a great loss to Hong Kong's disappearing heritage.
But Chan may have a point. We appreciate that officials have their hands tied in dealing with heritage sites in private hands, and the rights of property ownership must be respected.
In the case of government property, the situation is not reassuring, either. The U-turn on the controversial Government Hill project underlines the lack of a coherent strategy on conservation. In justifying the change, the development chief focused on the use of office space rather than the building's heritage value. While the office block has been saved from the wrecking ball, it appears to be nothing more than a political decision to minimise controversy.
Instead of leaving it to the preferences of those in power, heritage protection should be rooted in sound policies and effective law enforcement. The U-turn has raised concerns over the difficulties faced in drawing up a conservation policy. Leung has to prove that striking the right balance between development and conservation remains his goal.