Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Future of harbourfront lies with the people

There has been much discussion in recent months about the harbour, and the scale and content of any future development, including whether further reclamation can be justified.

It is heartening to see such interest. When I first floated the idea of the need for some type of independent umbrella body to oversee the future of the harbour some years ago, there was little serious interest, either at community or government level.

One of the main findings of the preliminary research of the Designing Hong Kong Harbour District initiative was the need for a harbour district authority with real powers that reported at the highest level of government. The government has proposed the formation of an Advisory Committee on the Enhancement of the Harbourfront to advise on harbour design, planning, development and management, and to explore new ways to improve public participation in the planning process.

In my view, however, the government's advisory committee proposal can be regarded only as an interim step until a decision is reached as to the nature of the body to whom this vital task is to be entrusted. The role of an advisory committee is such that it still leaves the real power with those whose proposals have largely not found favour with the community.

Let us step back and ask why we need an organisation dedicated to the planning and management of the harbour. Hong Kong's harbour is a "special public asset" and a "natural heritage of Hong Kong people", according to the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance. It is not a special government asset or a natural heritage of the government, but of the community. This means the government must take into account the preferences and desires of the community and give it the priority it deserves. It means involving the relevant public and private sector organisations and stakeholders, and consulting at grass-roots level, then acting on the views put forward.

It also means being transparent with plans and proposals at an early stage - not consulting when these have been finalised and then pleading there is not the time nor the necessary resources to undertake a major rethink if the public does not agree with the approach.

The harbour is a special asset and a symbol of the city, and there is no doubt it can be improved in many ways.

The harbour has to be considered as a whole district, not as a series of waterfront neighbourhoods.

The planning and design needs to be integrated on a holistic basis with the various competing uses balanced carefully. But there is a lack of co-ordination between government departments, piecemeal development, a top-down planning approach on a project-by-project basis, with too much emphasis on engineering and transport-led solutions, and without enough reference to what the public thinks is important.

The harbour has to provide appropriate facilities for commercial, community and tourism uses, and both sides of the harbour also house important business districts. These uses, together with the roads and railways required to provide access and interlink the various centres of development, are not always natural bedfellows, but given Hong Kong's size they are all important and need to be accommodated in an integrated and balanced manner. It is the lack of balance that has led to discontent with the proposals and to calls for a complete rethink of where we are heading and who should decide the priorities, particularly as priorities change over the years, and there needs to be sufficient flexibility in the system to cater for the aspirations of future generations.

One issue which the community has not fully taken on board is the response to traffic congestion which the government sees being solved by the construction of major overhead and ground-level highways along the Hong Kong Island waterfront, further separating the community from the water. While many people would like to see improvements to the flow of traffic through Central, I am not sure they want to see further six-or-more-lane highways, some at a height of 21 metres, in Central and Causeway Bay, which seems to be the current proposal.

If there is an integrated harbour planning policy so that new roads are designed and built in a way that responds to the sensitivity of the situation, so that there is a balance of uses throughout the area with a possible decentralisation of some office uses, perhaps a congestion charge and limited new commercial development in the Central/Wan Chai district, then the volume of traffic using the proposed bypass could be reduced.

In any event, an underground solution should be further considered - the government says the expense is unacceptable, but has anyone asked the community whether it considers such expense preferable to further spoiling the waterfront and limiting access to it? There would possibly have to be trade-offs, but is it right that the government assumes it knows the community's priorities in this connection?

There is an overriding case for a harbour district authority but we do not need a large bureaucratic machine to go with it.

We have good professionals within the civil service to implement plans once policy and direction are set. It is the policy-making aspects that have to be looked at, not the implementation. I would like to see an umbrella authority with the powers to set overall harbour district policy, to decide on a master plan, and then require government bureaus and departments to work together to interpret and implement such policies, but which does not take on implementation itself.

The authority would have to be a statutory organisation with paid officers and limited support staff because the volume of work involved in reviewing, investigating, balancing and integrating proposals, and co-ordinating/monitoring implementation for the harbour district, would be impossible to undertake properly on a part-time or voluntary basis.

The authority should consult and take advice from the community, partly through the Advisory Committee on the Enhancement of the Harbourfront if its membership is sufficiently representative.

However, a challenge which we have to be aware of is the need to consult extensively and not only with those who have been making their voices heard recently. It will be important to secure involvement and opinion from all sectors of the community.

Nicholas Brooke is chairman of Professional Property Services and head of the London-based Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

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