A leading green campaign group has urged the government to consider alternative ways to persuade owners to hand over their heritage buildings.
The Conservancy Association put forward its view on the third day of the Antiquities Advisory Board's public consultation on how to preserve private historic buildings.
It came as the government's top adviser on antiquities said that any plan to preserve the city's historic buildings through public donations was probably a non-starter as heritage has not traditionally inspired Hongkongers' charitable side.
The Conservancy Association was responding to a question in the consultation document that asked: "Do you think that we should provide more incentives to private owners in order to encourage them to preserve their historic buildings?"
Referring to two cases in which historic mansions were saved when the owners took up a government offer to swap them for neighbouring green-belt plots, the campaign group argued that it might be better to compensate owners with sites in other areas with equivalent market value.
"Land swap proposals within green belt sites may not be very attractive to owners and will sacrifice vegetation," it said.
"The government can think of alternatives, such as compensating owners with transferable development rights so that they can buy or sell gross floor area in the market. Or, for example, can a historic house in a rural village be exchanged for a unit in an urban area?"
In the first case of its kind, the heritage mansion King Yin Lei (pictured), in Wan Chai, was rescued from demolition in 2008 after its owner and the government reached a deal in which the owner was offered an adjacent man-made hillside.
More recently, a grade one historic mansion at 23 Coombe Road was saved from redevelopment after the owner, a subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa, was offered a green belt site opposite, pending the Town Planning Board's approval to rezone for development.
"The exchange site for King Yin Lei was a bit better because it was an artificial slope with new vegetation. But the proposed exchange site for the Coombe Road house is controversial and sets a bad precedent for giving [land] in green belts," the association's senior campaign manager Peter Li Siu-man, said.
The consultation paper put forward other questions including whether public money should be spent on buying historic buildings from private owners and whether the scope of preservation should be extended from individual buildings to streets or even whole areas.
Li said he felt disappointed that the board was raising largely the same questions as those in a 2004 consultation that ended with no conclusion.
"It has been 10 years since the government asked the public these questions and it should have got some ideas by now. We are worried they are just playing delaying tactics by repeating the same questions," Li added.
Peak constituency district councillor Joseph Chan Ho-lim, who has been lobbying the government to scrap the Coombe Road deal, said he had had suggested industrial sites in Wan Chai or Chai Wan as options.
"But the Development Bureau does not want to swap land across districts as it found the impact too big," Chan added.
The consultation document also includes a question on whether a heritage trust should be set up and whether public money should be its source of finance.
Questioned on this issue on RTHK yesterday, Andrew Lam Siu-lo, chairman of the Antiquities Advisory Board, said: "Hongkongers have a culture of giving, but mainly when natural and human disasters occur. We are less prone to making donations for heritage conservation.
"If we introduce a fund which relies on donations as in Western countries, will it work in Hong Kong?"
He added: "People have become more enthusiastic about heritage conservation in the past eight or 10 years. But would I be so optimistic as to think such a trust can count on donations? No … I hope I am wrong."
The idea of a heritage trust was explored in a study commissioned by the previous government back in 2011. The subsequent report, finished last year, recommended seed money of HK$900 million be given by the government, with the trust then being self-financing mainly from investments and rental income.
While the board says in the consultation document that it believes a trust would help "promote public participation in heritage conservation" and "find new sources of funding", it also says that the continuity of such a trust could not be assured.
Even if the government was to fund just part of the maintenance costs of all graded historic buildings, the sum would be huge, Lam went on to warn. There were 1,444 buildings on a list of properties to be assessed compiled in 2009, with other buildings since proposed for grading.
"The current subsidy cap on the maintenance of each heritage building is HK$1 million. Just multiply the figures … it is a very large sum of money," he said.