Redeveloping the west wing of the former government headquarters for commercial use is unjustified when officials are spending more than HK$750 million a year to rent private office space for their use, according to conservationists.
They argue that moving some of these staff to the west wing from the private offices they continue to occupy despite the opening of the new HK$5.5 billion government headquarters would free up more commercial space for business. Officials plan an office tower on the west wing site to alleviate the shortage of commercial space.
The issue was highlighted in a public consultation that closed yesterday on the proposal to replace the west wing.
According to information from the Government Property Agency, (GPA) released to the South China Morning Post, the government rented about 56,000 square metres of office space in several business districts last year at a cost of HK$766 million.
The west wing has a gross floor area of 22,376 square metres, and if preserved could accommodate 40 per cent of the officials now using this rented space.
Most of the rented space - 21,800 square metres - is in Wan Chai, with 19 departments paying HK$10 million a month on rent in 18 private buildings.
These agencies, including the Social Welfare and Labour Departments, have no plans to move because they need to stay close to their headquarters in the same district for operational efficiency, the property agency said.
But it was not clear why the Education Bureau, with headquarters now at the new government complex, needs to keep branch offices in Wan Chai.
In Mong Kok, five departments are renting commercial space for HK$7 million a month. The Buildings Department, the largest occupier, will move later, although there is no timetable.
Most staff using rented offices in Central and Admiralty will be moved to government-owned premises by 2015, the property agency said.
The government wants a private company to redevelop the 1959 west wing into a new tower offering 40,300 square metres, 70 per cent of which would be for commercial use.
It decided to retain ownership of the site after public opposition to a land sale.
Katty Law Ngar-ning, convenor of the Government Hill Concern Group, said the rental figures would back up her group's call for the historic west wing to continue its historic function.
"It only needs a bit of renovation and is fit for reuse, according to architecture professors at Chinese University," Law said.
Green Sense's Roy Tam Hoi-pong agreed, saying moving staff of departments now renting offices to the west wing would free up private commercial space.
The government asked an expert panel to propose heritage gradings both for the site as a whole and for its component buildings. The Antiquities Advisory Board accepted the panel's grade one rating - the highest short of monument status - for the site, and will meet this month to finalise individual gradings. Members were split earlier over whether the west wing deserved a grade one rating.
The government's approach has been called into question by critics, who say the board usually treats all buildings on a site as a single entity.