While many officials are worried about the erosion of government authority in the heated debate on harbour reclamation, the sea change in public opinion opens the way for a sustainable solution to protecting our harbour.
The Conservancy Association has been a long-time advocate of minimum harbour reclamation, ever since the Port and Airport Development Strategy and the Metroplan were first published in 1989. Over the years, numerous submissions were made to the authorities to urge that proposed reclamation work be scaled down.
Under the present system, uneasy compromises were the best solutions at the time. Nonetheless, the reclamation would have been much more destructive had the original plans gone ahead without amendments.
For instance, over the last five years, the Conservancy Association has been the lone voice protesting to the Highways Department, which kept pushing for the construction of a temporary road cutting across Edinburgh Square in front of City Hall. Without objections, both the square and the Queen's Pier - a historical monument bearing witness to the colonial era - would have disappeared long ago. Today, both are earmarked for demolition should phase three of the Central reclamation scheme go ahead.
The extent of harbour reclamation should ultimately be a reflection of public values. Does the public prefer a wider harbour to the benefits that another road link might bring?
Each of the proposed reclamation works must be assessed with regard to its specific context and the prevailing values of the community. The events in recent weeks showed clearly that the yardstick against which proposed reclamation should be measured has changed, for two reasons.
First, the courts have adopted a stricter interpretation of the Harbour Protection Ordinance. Second, the public now places a much higher value on the integrity of the harbour than the potential benefits associated with any reclamation.
Both the government and civil society have a duty to respond to these changes and apply the new yardstick. The fate of the harbour should not be beholden to any vested interest.
On closer examination, the real culprit of these controversies is an outdated mode of governance. The current institutions in the Transport Advisory Committee and the Town Planning Board are designed to help smooth the way for a pro-development administration, rather than allow full reflection of community values in public policies. Nearly all major reclamation proposals were justified by the need to build more roads to meet increasing traffic demand. Not surprisingly, when more reclaimed land is developed, more traffic demand will be generated. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy which has helped to shrink our harbour in the past few decades.
In the current standoff, we suggest a four-step process to handle the immediate crisis and to put in place a sustainable solution.
First, we support a temporary freeze on all harbour reclamation, regardless of the impending court ruling. After all, prevailing public values are the ultimate determinant for the future of our harbour.
Second, the government should appoint an independent panel of experts, to be chaired by a member of the judiciary, to review the scale and rationale of all proposed reclamation. Society should be given the chance to participate through public hearings.
Third, the government should begin setting up a Harbour Conservation Authority to take charge of the planning and execution of all projects in the harbour area. It should be endowed with a clear mandate to break the vicious circle. A new mode of governance should be adopted, using a roundtable concept, encompassing equal representation from the government, the private sector and civil society.
Fourth, the Town Planning Board should be reformed to give the public better access to decision-making. Its structure and membership-appointment system should be reviewed and the loophole that means transport infrastructure is subject to less stringent scrutiny should be plugged. Such a redesign should take place in the spirit of partnership, rather than under an administration-led system.
In public policymaking, goalposts do move with shifts in community values. Crying foul is never a solution. A wiser strategy is to embrace the new paradigm.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Conservancy Association.
(Published on 3 October 2003, South China Morning Post)