The right mix must be found for the future of Victoria Harbour

Proposed authority to plan and oversee Hong Kong’s most valuable asset must ensure the public interest is balanced against that of the commercial sector

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 1:12am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 1:29am

A dozen years of talking has finally got Hong Kong to the verge of having an agency to plan and develop its most valuable natural asset, Victoria Harbour. The Harbourfront Commission, a government advisory body, has recommended that a statutory authority is the best way to ensure the most from the waterfront. How strong its powers should be and where long-term funding comes from have not been defined; that is up to authorities should they finally decide that the time has come to push ahead with the idea. There is every reason that they should, but in doing so, they have to ensure the public interest is balanced against that of the government and commercial sector.

The commission’s vision is for public access to most of the harbour’s 73km of shoreline. Apart from promenades, cycling tracks, playgrounds, dog walks and gardens, there could be alfresco dining, places for street performances and crowd-drawing attractions. The initial plan is for a HK$10.2 million budget so that over a decade, the authority could develop and manage eight already designated sites through partnerships. Decisions would be made by a governing board chosen by the chief executive, there would be transparency through open meetings and lawmakers would approve funding.

Our harbour is an important part of Hong Kong’s identity and image and symbolises its history, prosperity and success. Yet for more than 150 years, governments have paid it short shrift, seeing it in terms of raising funds through infrastructure-led development rather than as a means to improve quality of life. Access to much of the shoreline has subsequently been restricted.

Two decades of public pressure to protect the harbour have led to an end to reclamation and a clean-up drive that has had remarkable results. But there is a danger that the government would perceive any authority as a development agency and expect it to pay its own way. While financial sustainability should be the goal, that is viable only in the long term when there is control of much larger expanses of the harbourfront. The key to success, as shown by Singapore, Sydney, San Francisco and other cities that have won plaudits for waterfront development, is to find the right mix between public and commercial use.

A harbourfront authority would ideally control all aspects of harbourside development, eliminating the more than 20 government bureaus and departments behind red tape. There is great potential, but it can be realised only through balancing interests. Those of the public have to be paid special attention.