Saturday, April 17, 2004

Victories won in lost harbour battle

Editorial - SCMP

A year of litigation over the fate of Victoria Harbour came to an end this week when the Society for the Protection of the Harbour said it would drop a legal appeal aimed at reducing the size of the Central reclamation. In an assessment based only on the result of the Central case it would seem the society's efforts ended in failure, as the government is now going ahead with reclaiming the full 18 hectares previously planned mainly for a freeway bypass.

But looking at it more broadly - including the success in having the Wan Chai portion of the project returned to the Town Planning Board for review and the higher public awareness about the need to protect what's left of the waterway - there should be no reason for regret. The bypass will still be built, but a good portion of it will travel underground and the Wan Chai reclamation should be only as large as necessary to support it.

The focus should now turn to the uses to which the reclaimed land will be put. Here, the government's willingness to discuss a harbour authority is encouraging - in contrast to its refusal this time last year to even consider the proposal. Such an authority is essential for restoring the public's faith in government promises about the harbour: that reclamations now being pursued will be the last and that public benefit, not commercial interest, will be the priority for future development.

It is easy to see how faith in the government's intentions has been eroded over the years. Constant reclamation and rezoning have allowed for tall buildings, unsightly industrial works and pedestrian-unfriendly roads to crop up all along our waterfront. Less than a fifth of the harbour's coastline is accessible to the public, while recreational areas are few and far between. An independent harbour authority with the power to influence future development will be essential to restoring trust and turning the distressed waterway into the civic treasure it should be.

Permanent Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said the government will consult other cities with such authorities. She should also refer to last year's Planning Department study on harbourfront development, which outlined several options for a harbour authority.

Some of the most successful agencies in other cities are backed by statutory power, with the right to own land as well as invest revenue into protection and sustainable development. A non-statutory option could at least promote communication between different government departments. This co-ordination is clearly lacking in the Central-Wan Chai project and has resulted in a complex surface road network being designed by transport planners, while land use is the responsibility of another department with potentially conflicting ideas.

Whatever option is chosen, it must allow for effective and constructive public input. The recently announced harbour advisory body, with representatives from a number of concern groups, should also be brought into discussion on the composition and mission of a harbour authority.

At the very least, the agency should be charged with assuring that revised plans for the Wan Chai and Southeast Kowloon reclamations are the minimum required and that surface development on these plots - including the Central reclamation - is geared towards public and recreational uses. The Tamar, bordering the current reclamation and slated for a now-delayed government complex, might also be put under the authority's administration.

The end of the legal battle over the Central waterfront means that reclamation there is now a fait accompli. But thanks in part to the court challenges of the past year, more people have come to see the harbour as a civic asset that needs to be protected rather than paved over and sold to the highest bidder. A harbour authority can help institutionalise these values and safeguard what's left for the Hong Kong people, the harbour's rightful owners.

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