My Take

There's a problem at the root of Hong Kong's new tree management guidelines

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 12:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 12:45am

Hong Kong is an urban jungle so we need trees and greenery to make it liveable. That seems obvious but it is not - that is, not when you and I have to pay for it.

The Development Bureau will insert new guidelines on the management and care of trees on private property into existing building management laws.

That sounds good - on paper - until you find out the guidelines will have no legal force.

READ MORE: Tracking the health of Hong Kong's trees: an interactive map

They say private tree owners have a duty of care. And you may be one if the residential estate you are living in is responsible for slopes on which there are trees.

Responsibilities include hiring professionals for tree works, mitigating risks, keeping records and maintaining slope safety.

Well, all that costs money and time. Since those guidelines do not have the force of law, what do you think most owners will end up doing?

They will just cut down the trees and be done with it once and for all.

The problem is, under current laws, they are liable for damages if a tree falls on their property and someone is injured or killed.

So unless they are real tree lovers, owners have a legal incentive to get rid of trees that may pose a danger, and those are usually the older and larger ones which are also the most ecologically valuable.

READ MORE: 'Tree massacre' fears as Hong Kong introduces tree handbook for building managers

Hong Kong desperately needs a tree law to prevent people from cutting down trees on a whim and to force them to care for those on their property. But the Development Bureau says no. It says it has studied overseas laws and doesn't think they suit Hong Kong's conditions.

The real reason is that officials don't want to upset residential owners too much - more than half of the local population owns their own homes - by forcing them to pay for costly tree maintenance.

It's not that our government doesn't recognise the public good, but it is always worried about upsetting vested interests, so it does everything halfway. Officials think they are balancing different interests. In fact, they are just introducing inefficient half measures.

That's the case with vehicle emissions, the plastic bag surcharge, waste recycling and kindergarten subsidies. So it is with tree protection.