Loophole means Hong Kong city planners have to find a way to inspect church plan for 25-storey private hospital in historic area

Conservationists angered by design, which they say could diminish neighbourhood’s character

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 10:53pm

A forgotten government plan to cap the height of buildings in Hong Kong’s business district has created a loophole which could allow a church to build a 25-storey private hospital in the midst of low-rise historic buildings.

Now the city’s town planning watchdog has decided to put things right, requiring officials to look into placing the project back under public scrutiny, the Post has learned.

The Anglican church Sheng Kung Hui is planning the expansion at its Bishop’s House compound in Central.

But it has also been revealed that even if the public will get a say in this single project, districts like Central may continue without height control, as the government focuses on addressing a housing crisis in the world’s least affordable property market.

“As the government’s current priority is to provide land ... to meet the pressing housing needs, there is no timetable to impose height restrictions for Central and other [districts],” a Planning Department spokesman said.

According to the department, it had since 2010 imposed height restrictions over a number of districts such as Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Mong Kok. But Central was one of the districts left out after the government prioritised land provision from 2012.

The spokesman did not respond to a request to specify which other districts were also left out.

“This is obviously a loophole,” said Central and Western District Council member Cheng Lai-king, of the Democratic Party. “The department has neglected its duty by leaving height restrictions behind to focus on finding land. This is why [the church] is now free to exploit the loophole.”

Cheng said she would raise the issue at a council meeting.

The Sheng Kung Hui compound, often referred to as Bishop Hill, includes four heritage buildings constructed between 1845 and 1919. It sits within one of Hong Kong’s most historic areas, which has increasingly become a magnet for tourists.

The proposed 25-storey hospital has drawn a huge public backlash for fear it may ruin the atmospheric streetscape.

But an absence of height restriction means the Town Planning Board – a statutory watchdog – will not have a say in the church’s plan, because building a hospital falls within the scope of permitted uses for the compound.

The board issues its approvals based on public opinion, so bypassing the body means the public will not be consulted on the development.

A source said the board reached a unanimous decision at a meeting on August 10, requiring the Planning Department to study how to extend the board’s power of scrutiny over the church’s compound.

“[The board] was concerned that high-rise developments in that area might not be in harmony with the surroundings in terms of urban landscape,” the source said. “Members believed it would be safer if the board could examine the proposal.”

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The department spokesman said “suitable amendment” would be proposed to Central’s statutory outline zoning plan, which specifies land uses and development parameters for different sites.

He said the department was still working out details of the amendment, and would seek the board’s approval before launching a two-month public consultation on the final proposal.

Katty Law Ngar-ning, convenor of the Government Hill Concern Group, which campaigns on conservation issues, said amending the zoning plan meant the public could be consulted through submission of comments and open hearings, which was partly what the group had been urging.

But she stressed that the government should not shelve its work on imposing height restrictions.

The group earlier applied to set up a heritage zone with height and development restrictions, covering Bishop Hill and at least nine other important historic buildings, but the planning board rejected the application at its August 10 meeting.

Canon Peter Koon Ho-ming, provincial secretary general of the church, said it would study “how to protect our basic rights” after the department announces more details.

Like its predecessor, the current administration has repeatedly stressed that hunting land to plug a predicted shortage of 1,200 hectares for the next three decades was its top priority.

A five-month public consultation on how to make up for the shortage will end next month.

The lack of land is often cited among reasons the city has the world’s least affordable property market, and notoriously tiny flats.