My Take

Hong Kong's tree expert panel should have more power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 August, 2015, 12:27am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 August, 2015, 12:27am

People's safety is paramount. But the government seems increasingly bent on cutting down trees in its name. Are we really under threat from so many trees around town?

Early this month, the government chopped down four century-old Chinese banyan trees much-loved by neighbours in Sai Ying Pun without warning. This came after another century-old banyan nearby collapsed during high winds and rain last month, injuring two people. Officials at the time left alone the four trees in St Stephen's Lane near Bonham Road but abruptly changed their mind. On the same day, they also cut down another well-known tree at the top of nearby Eastern Street.

On paper, government departments should consult the expert panel on tree management before axing trees, especially those that have been long-standing and have heritage value. In practice, so long as departments claim potential danger to the public, they can axe any trees without prior consultation and notification with the panel, which paradoxically is the public body that has the most expertise on such matters. When the Highways Department chopped the trees in St Stephen's Lane, they claimed public safety and so did not tell the panel until afterwards.

Meanwhile, the same department wants to chop 257 trees along Castle Peak Road to widen sections of the road from being a single to a double lane. This has provoked angry reactions from residents in Tuen Mun.

Neighbours have formed the Tuen Mun Tree Protection Action Group to oppose the plan. It has argued, not unreasonably, that better traffic management could do the job. One reason traffic has increased is because of the opening of Harrow International School, which has led to an influx of private cars. Getting the school to pressure students to travel by school buses like the Hong Kong International School should be part of a solution.

Because trees require costly management and monitoring, it seems government bureaucrats are happiest to get rid of them as the first rather than last resort. To change this mindset, it's imperative to hand more power to the expert panel made up of specialists like "tree daddy" Professor Jim Chi-yung of the University of Hong Kong.