(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2004-3-27 )
Have Hong Kong people lost the most important legal battle over environmental protection since green groups fought to save Sha Lo Tung valley, more than a decade ago, and Long Valley in 2000? This was the question on many people's mind when two weeks ago the courts allowed the government to proceed with the third phase of the Central reclamation project.
On close examination, some important lessons have been learned from the controversy, and Hong Kong can only win if the people's energy from the anti-reclamation campaign can be channelled into a pro-harbour institution-building process.
Three developments have become apparent. First, thanks to years of relentless efforts by green groups to put environmental protection on the mainstream agenda, and the heated debate in the media in recent months, the public has a much-heightened awareness of the importance of Victoria Harbour as a precious asset for this and future generations.
Second, the court battle launched by the Society for Protection of the Harbour has succeeded in extracting a more stringent interpretation of the Harbour Protection Ordinance. The Court of Final Appeal now requires that an overriding public needs test must be satisfied before any future reclamation work can proceed.
Third, a diverse coalition, Citizen Envisioning @ Harbour, comprising 16 organisations from universities, professional bodies, environmental, social service and community groups has been formed. Valuable social capital was built through this coalition after it launched an innovative public participatory process involving exhibitions, hearings and round-table meetings in October.
However, to benefit fully from these positive developments, we must be realistic about what constraints we are facing - the first of which is the limitation of the courts.
A court can clarify certain ground rules, but it cannot help us design a world-class harbour, nor can it put in place a plan for sustainable development. Court battles also use a lot of public resources. Therefore, we must ask: given the urgency to find the best solution for our harbour, is a further court battle the best way to use public resources and public energy? A level-headed observer will conclude that the costs far outweigh the potential benefits.
This is not to say that the mission to protect the harbour has been accomplished. Far from it, this is just the beginning; a chance to make some fundamental changes, including setting up new institutions, implementing sustainable development principles, amending the Town Planning Ordinance, and reviewing the chief executive's role in the ordinance. The most productive way to achieve this is for all stakeholders to embark on a consensus-building process and collectively improve the system.
A new institution is needed to take the momentum forward. The best option is to set up a multi-stakeholder Harbour Round Table, comprising equal numbers from the government, business sector and civil society.
It should have two clear missions. First, it should champion an integrated approach to the sustainable development of the harbour district, taking into account the principles enshrined in Agenda 21, the United Nations document endorsed by China , with 177 other countries, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
Second, it should champion an impartial public participatory process for planning and developing the harbour, with particular reference to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, which emphasises the public's access to information, and participation in decision making.
It should operate in parallel with the statutory planning process, providing public input and reflecting community value in all zoning plans considered by the Town Planning Board. To succeed, there must be active participation from all relevant government bureaus and departments, in particular the Environment, Transport and Works departments. Although without executive power, the Harbour Round Table would serve one important function: to satisfy the overriding public needs test.
The government has announced its intention to set up a Harbour Front Advancement Advisory Committee. But given the traditional model of advisory committees, this is a grossly inadequate response. More innovation, greater independence and a broader mandate are needed.
For Hong Kong to achieve sustainable development, the only choice is for government, business and the public to work together. Of course, there are big differences among the various sectors. But the experiences from the more than 6,400 cities which adopted Agenda 21 programmes have shown that society can move towards sustainable development, provided there is an institution which allows open, inclusive public participation and encourages a wide perspective in decision-making. The movement started by Citizen Envisioning @ Harbour six months ago has demonstrated that a solution is possible.
Instead of using our precious harbour as a centre of dispute, why not focus on putting in place a world-class planning process for a world-class harbour?
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development and spokesman of Citizen Envisioning @ Harbour.