After months of silence, the controversy over harbour reclamation emerged again last month. Oddly, the issue this time is not reclamation itself, but whether the information issued for public consultation by the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee taskforce is merely another government attempt to push through its own agenda.
To assess whether this claim holds any water, it is first necessary to understand the make-up of the committee; a unique institution which straddles the government and the community at large.
In October 2003, when the reclamation controversy was at its peak, 16 civic organisations, including universities, professional bodies, environmental and community groups, got together under a new coalition - Citizen Envisioning @ Harbour. The coalition's preferred solution was to set up a harbour round table, whereby all stakeholders, including the government, business and civil society could gather on an equal footing, and set up an impartial platform for the public to develop a consensus for the way forward.
At that time, it proved too drastic a move for the government. Instead, it was agreed that the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee would be a compromise solution - an advisory committee within the government structure but with an independent chairman, a majority of nominated representatives from different concern groups, and relevant officials, all having equal status. It was an attempt, however imperfect, for a genuine tripartite partnership.
Over the past 10 months, members have worked hard to iron out their differences as they set about devising a model for public discussion. Integrated planning principles were debated for months, and an agreement is close. A fresh planning review for Kai Tak began four months ago. A harbourfront enhancement review for Wan Chai and its adjoining areas has just begun in earnest. More are in the pipeline.
The challenge should not be underestimated. Two committee members, Alvin Kwok Ngai-kuen and Ng Mee-kam, said the cultural gap was so wide that the officials had a different vocabulary from the other members: consultation versus engagement; top-down versus bottom-up; solution versus process; and clients versus stakeholders. The level of trust in the public also differs widely: officials prefer to stay within the safe haven of expert advice, whereas other members have more faith in the public to deliver innovative solutions.
With such a daunting challenge, can the committee fulfill its mission of engaging the public, building a consensus and delivering to Hong Kong a vibrant, accessible and sustainable harbour for all? As yet, no one has the answer. We do know, however, that the chances of success will be enhanced with practical changes in three areas.
First, the committee's internal working arrangements must be revamped to allow it to function as a co-ordinated body with equal contributions from all members. Essential measures would include giving all members independent secretariat support, equal access to information, and resources to undertake impartial research.
Second, it must empower the public with impartial, digestible and unfiltered information. In this regard, officials have an extra responsibility to ensure that their "wish list" and perceived "constraints list" are laid bare for the public to debate.
Last, the community should respond to the committee's call with a new mindset. Now that a platform is being set for genuine public engagement, it will be up to all stakeholders to not just participate in the process, but also to help improve it. The committee process is worth our support not because it is perfect, but because it may bring about significant community benefits if given the chance to succeed.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is convenor of Citizen Envisioning @ Harbour.