(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2004-11-13 )
Does our government have a split personality? This is the question that springs to mind most often if one has been closely following the controversy over the development of the Central Police Station site, a collection of 18 buildings which also includes the former Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison.
There is no dispute about the historical significance of the complex. The government has vowed to preserve the compound, saying it is an invaluable part of Hong Kong 's heritage. Logically, one would expect the government to hold on to the property, as a trustee for the public. But instead, the administration proposes to transfer it to the private sector using a 50-year land lease.
Is there a good justification for the action? Having owned the property for the past 163 years, the government says there is an urgent need to develop it as a heritage tourism project. This begs a fundamental question: is this a heritage project with tourism benefits, or a tourism project under heritage constraints? When one realises that the champion of the project is the Tourism Commission, under the Economic and Labour Affairs Bureau, and not the Home Affairs Bureau - the heritage authority in the bureaucracy - it is easy to guess the answer.
To be fair to the commission, it does intend to make it mandatory for any chosen developer to preserve the buildings in accordance with the requirements laid down by the Antiquities Advisory Board. Yet this is exactly where the problem lies: meeting minimum preservation requirements is essentially what it takes to get full marks for the heritage section under the tender marking scheme; the real test is how much land premium a developer is prepared to offer.
There is a public consensus that the project should be conducted with the help of private expertise and private capital, be they commercial developers or charity trusts, and that the selection process should be transparent and competitive. Yet three fundamental changes are required.
The first is to adopt a concession model similar to a build-operate-transfer scheme used in many infrastructure projects. The successful bidder will enter into a 30-year concession contract with the government, along the lines of a public-private partnership. The government will retain the property title but the successful bidder will have operational and management rights, under strict conditions. This will allow the government tighter control and more authority to intervene, if necessary. Full control will revert back to the public at the end of the concession period.
Second, the selection mechanism needs to be changed from a pro-development to a pro-heritage process. Bidders will compete on how best they can enhance the site's heritage value, for example. They should be required to demonstrate the financial sustainability of their proposals so that no long-term public subsidy is needed. But the tender marking scheme should be revised so that land premiums paid to the government carry the same weight as broader economic benefits.
Third, continuous public participation should be allowed in the planning, assessment and operational stages. It is absurd to exclude members of the community from the project - so far, the public has been barred from visiting the site - when it is claimed to be in the name of public interest.
An independent heritage trust with broad-based participation should be set up to monitor the project and manage the concession contract on behalf of the public. If Hong Kong is to go down the path of sustainable development, we need more than new models for heritage projects - we need new institutions as guardian angels.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Conservancy Association and a member of the Central Police Station Heritage Taskforce.