P.O.Box No. 35588 King's Road Post Office North Point, Hong Kong
Review of Built Heritage Conservation Policy
18 May 2004
Home Affairs Bureau (Attn: Culture Division 2) 41/F Revenue Tower 5 Gloucester Road Wan Chai Hong Kong
Review of Built Heritage Conservation Policy
We are writing with our response to the above consultation paper.
We welcome the community being given an opportunity to discuss built heritage conservation, and note that the paper touches on some of the sensitive issues involved. However, we are disappointed that the paper provides little leadership or insight into how the difficult issues arising in conservation can be resolved. The discussion is generally superficial, and in some areas does little more than raise a string of open, apparently irreconcilable questions.
We would like to put forward a number of points for your consideration.
Our first observation is that Hong Kong has done too little to conserve its built heritage. A cursory visit to, say Singapore or Macau, which have similar space constraints to Hong Kong, reveals whole districts that have been preserved, and historical buildings that are landmarks in focal areas. The preservation effort in these cities has extended to colonial elements and the buildings of non-indigenous peoples. Developed countries with a long and rich history, such as the UK, are in another league again: the UK has some 370,000 listed buildings. Hong Kong, with just 78 declared monuments, has a lot of ground to catch up. In all too many cases a very narrow short term view of economic benefit has been taken, and much of our rich heritage has already been demolished. This has implications, not only for community values and for the pleasure and fulfilment of residents, but also for tourism. Hong Kong cannot claim to be a "world city" without a much better conservation policy than it has. The starting point for the paper should be that Hong Kong has hitherto neglected its built heritage and that more needs to be done to conserve it.
The paper's treatment of overseas experience is too brief. The authors of the paper should spend more time studying the vast wealth of experience on conservation that has been built up in developed countries such as Britain. (See, for example, the English Heritage website, www.english-heritage.org.uk.) The issues and questions raised in the paper have arisen in these countries too, and solutions have been developed, many of which may be relevant to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is coming very late to the issue of conservation, and can take advantage of the experience of developed countries.
Conservation is an issue for the community. While the taxpayer, via the Government, has to shoulder some of the burden, it simply cannot be that in every case the taxpayer has to pay the existing property owner the full value of the supposed loss caused by designation as a heritage building. Firstly, designation is not necessarily a “loss" to the owner. There is cachet and social value in owning a designated property, and this in turn may have economic value as well. In the UK, for example, it is quite common for owners to seek listing for their property. Secondly, in countries that have strict designation policies, such as Britain, designation as a conservation site does not need to be agreed by the owner (although the owner may appeal against the decision). Thirdly, in Britain the owner does not normally receive compensation for the costs and constraints of his property being designated - although there are grants and other assistance available. The point is that individual owners must bear at least some of the cost of designation as well as enjoy the benefits. The Government, or rather the taxpayer, cannot be expected to insulate owners from the effects of designation.
Based on the foregoing, we do not necessarily accept the “fundamental principles" set out in section 5 of the paper.
As regards (a), “to conserve but not to take over ownership", we think that in some cases take over will be necessary if the original owner is not interested in conservation. We would hope that the institution taking over the property would not always be the Government. Perhaps in time institutions like Britain's National Trust will emerge in Hong Kong and perform part of the conservation job. It is important not merely that built heritage be preserved but that it can also be enjoyed by the community. Buildings that remain in private hands are often not accessible to the public. For example, the paper acknowledges that Haw Par Mansion may have limited value to the public because they had no opportunity to visit it. But the solution is surely for the building to be opened eventually to the public, whether or not it remains in private hands.
(c) “A balance between conservation needs and economic cost should be maintained." This is obviously true, but not very helpful. The point is, where should a balance be struck, and how will the costs and benefits be socialised? Some thoughts on this are given in 2 above.
(d) “Private property rights should be given due regard." Property rights are obviously of great importance. However, a meaningful conservation policy will inevitably involve the surrender of certain property rights to the community - or, more precisely, the exchange of certain rights for the status of designation and its attendant benefits. This is a sensitive issue for which an appropriate process has to be designed.
Land policy. One of the reasons for Hong Kong's poor performance in built heritage conservation is the Government's restrictive land policy. As the owner of the freehold of virtually all land in the territory, the Government has generally restricted the supply of new land, and also restricted the rezoning of land in existing use. These restrictions have put potential conservation sites under extreme pressure. If the Government were to adopt a more relaxed policy, for example permitting much of the existing land zoned for industrial/commercial use to be rezoned for residential or other purposes, this would increase the options for conserving sites of heritage value.
Many of the issues involved in conservation policy involve trade-offs between individual and community wellbeing. There is a need for the community to debate and develop a consensus on these issues. Without such consensus, any strengthened designation system could be seen as unfair and might be resisted by owners, or could indeed become an instrument of oppression in the hands of the authorities. A cultural change within the community is also needed, so that individual citizens better understand the value of conservation and are prepared to play their part in it. We believe that to achieve such consensus and cultural change would be easier under a democratic system of government. Nonetheless, we encourage the Bureau to do the best it can with the mandate it has.
I hope that our above comments are helpful.
Alan Lung Ka-lun Chairman
Reproduction of this paper is permitted with proper attribution to the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation