As the Urban Council totters inexorably towards extinction, there is a danger that in its death throes the council could cause lasting harm. This became apparent last week when a Council committee made ominous decisions about hawkers and how to control them. The move threatens to capsize a quarter-century of efforts to bring street hawking under control. Some Urbco councillors appear ready to give a new lease of life to hawkers, and the results of their short-sighted moves could be disastrous. A quarter-century ago, the congested streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong were crammed with 45,770 legal hawkers and about 15,000 illegal peddlers. The situation was chaotic. Streets were choked, footpaths impassable. In 1972, after ferocious debate, the Urban Council decided not to issue any more hawker licences. It launched a drive to clear the streets; there have since been an astonishing one million prosecutions for hawking. The major weapon in this relentless campaign - which cost $1 billion last year - has been the mandatory confiscation of hawkers' goods. Last week, the markets and street traders select committee abruptly turned long-standing policy on its head. Two key provisions of the law now threaten to be reversed. One involves the licensed itinerant hawkers, a fast-diminishing group which was to have been eliminated this year. Compensation payouts, retirements and allocation of fixed pitches would have seen the final 767 of these mobile peddlers give up their disruptive roving sales treks in busy streets. The full council earlier decided that these roaming hawkers had to go, but last week the select committee slammed on the brakes and reversed course. It was an about-turn which prompted Councillor Albert Lai Wing-lin to walk out in disgust. So what prompted the extraordinary reversal? Well, hawkers are a vocal, and well-organised constituency. A group of them was present when the select committee voted. Many councillors have their eye to the future. It now seems certain the Government will dissolve Urbco next year. Members will have only two choices if they wish to stay in politics (and to draw their substantial pay packets as professional politicians). They can go up, to the Legislative Council, an option for only a few high-profile politicians, or they can go to one of the 18 District Councils which will take over from District Boards. In either case, they will need votes. Hawkers represent powerful and highly visible voting blocs. Hence, say cynics, the sudden moves to appease hawkers. The select committee also wants to reverse another long-standing policy: mandatory seizure of goods for sale after hawkers have been convicted. There is here, at least, a discernible reason. Earlier this month when a magistrate fined an elderly man $400 for hawking and causing an obstruction, and confiscated his goods, the hawker set himself alight and later died. It was a tragedy, but is a government policy which has brought solid benefits to the community to be reversed because of one tragic case - literally one in a million? Without the threat of confiscation of goods the Hawker Control Force is powerless. Hawkers' prices will go up to cover the occasional fine, and as soon as they leave court the hawkers will be back on the streets, peddling the wares returned to them. In 1983, there were more than 17,500 illegal hawkers on Hong Kong Island and in southern Kowloon. Today, there are 4,100. It is still far too many, but they are governable, more or less. Without seizure of goods, hawkers will be able to thumb their noses at the law with impunity; the Urbco members will have removed the only realistic threat of fiscal punishment. The courts do not provide much of a deterrent. Last year, some hawkers were fined a mere $20. This year, courts have fined hawkers $18. Average fines for the 56,218 people convicted of illegal hawking in the first nine months of this year were $467. This is nothing when some hawkers are making $10,000 a day. The maximum fine this year was $5,000, for a person who had a string of previous offences. Licensed hawkers also break the law, 10,000 of them were prosecuted in the first nine months of the year, with fines averaging $460. This is mostly for obstruction. Once again, the only penalty that counts is confiscation. Urbco members keen to pander to hawkers because of future votes would do well to remember that other people vote, too. The Hong Kong Retail Management Association has responded with angry and detailed letters to the financial secretary and other top government officials. Shopkeepers want the situation brought under control, with tougher penalties, more restrictive licensing and, ultimately, a ban on all street hawking. In a modern society, retailers say, regular shops can well cater for the needs of any shopper. Maybe, but if Urbco members have their way, hawkers may soon be crowding back on to the streets.