The long-awaited proposals also suggest allowing partial development of ecologically important private sites Proposals to protect ecologically important private land - including a possible land-swapping system - were unveiled in a long-awaited conservation consultation paper yesterday. As reported by the South China Morning Post on Monday, the proposals rule out land resumption for conservation purposes. But they propose introducing a scientific scoring system to identify sites of top conservation priority. The policy aims to address difficulties in conserving sites that are privately owned and lie outside country parks. At the core of the proposals are plans for a private-public partnership to promote conservation on private sites facing development pressure. Under this initiative, landowners would be allowed to develop part of a site with relatively lower conservation value and conserve the rest of the land. The government also will consider swapping land with owners of natural heritage sites in 'exceptional cases'. But details on the criteria have not been formulated. It is expected that swaps would only be applied in a very restrictive way. There would be no cash compensation and the replacement land would be near the conserved site. Thomas Chow Tat-ming, deputy permanent secretary for Environment, Transport and Works, said: 'There is no cash compensation involved. Basically we are talking about land swaps. As to how many hectares of land will be swapped for how many hectares, it will be decided in actual negotiations.' The partnership approach would be similar to that applied at Cheung Kong's proposed Fung Lok Wai project, located on fish ponds adjacent to Mai Po reserve. Only a small portion of the fish ponds will be reclaimed for low-density housing, while the rest will be managed by a conservation trust. It has been speculated that Tai Ho Wan on Lantau, most of which is owned by the Swire Group, might also be eligible for such development or a land swap. In addition to the partnership, the government proposals also encourage voluntary management agreements between green groups and landowners to conserve key habitats. It is prepared to offer subsidies to the participants. The proposed scoring system to rate a site's environmental importance will not set a passing mark and a site's ranking will not be a once-only exercise. It is understood the government is prepared to conserve about 12 top-ranking sites. Secretary for Environment, Transport and Works Sarah Liao Sau-tung yesterday called for public support for the proposals. 'Why are we proposing it now at a time when Hong Kong is facing so many questions and urgent tasks? We have been talking it over for years and it has never been completed as it was always derailed because of issues like property and development rights,' she said. 'It is because when you see the trees, rivers and mountains, if you use your heart to appreciate and carefully observe, you will see eternity but not the hurriedness facing you today.' As to likely resistance from landowners and indigenous villagers, Dr Liao said they had always been misguided if they thought they could develop their agricultural land. She said the proposals aimed to further consolidate the conservation value of ecologically important sites and they would not breach property rights. 'We are not asking you to give up your sites. We are just telling you how much your land is worth in conservation terms,' she said. Green groups generally welcomed the proposals, saying they were a significant step forward. But the government should set up a conservation authority to co-ordinate the tasks now spread among bureaus and departments.