Sunday, 21 March 2010

Urgent Call for Heritage Conservation Policy

While the Urban Renewal Authority's proposal to preserve all 12 old tenements on Wing Lee Street in response to strong public calls following the success of the award-winning Echoes of the Rainbow is largely welcomed, it essentially exposes an urgent need for a long-term and sustainable heritage conservation policy in Hong Kong.

Again, the local media have regrettably missed the shot at the heart of the issue. Whether the URA has been given enormous pressure to reverse its decision in a Government conspiracy to defuse a potential blow to the administration is far from what really matters to the people of Hong Kong. The key question is how heritage conservation should be planned and implemented to make the best out of the limited supply of public resources.

Any sensible citizen should not forget that despite the handsome financial reserve on which the Hong Kong Government sits, the local community is still haunted by a lot of social problems to which urgent attention and resolution is required. Are we willing to take up the financial burden of heritage conservation now and for ever? How much public resources should be devoted to this good cause? How do we know whether any conservation proposal deserves the valuable public resources that should have been allocated elsewhere? By what benchmark and standard do we measure the effectiveness of our decision?

This is why, I believe, developing the best approach of sustainable heritage conservation in Hong Kong should start with establishing some basic but important criteria and guidelines for heritage conservation. Ideally, these criteria and guidelines should be worked out with rigorous consultation and engagement with the local community. In addition to the so-called cultured chatterers who often dominate if hijack the public affairs discourse of Hong Kong, the local residents must be consulted in a fair, open and thorough manner. In many cases private properties are put into question and the landlords and tenants must be allowed to make themselves clearly heard.

One major problem exposed in the Wing Lee Street saga is that the minority views of landlords and tenants are overshadowed if completely ignored during the public discourse. Media coverage has been focused on those who support conservation. What about those who do not? After the URA's reversion of its position, many are inevitably sympathetic towards those landlords and tenants who have already sold their homes to the URA, looking forward to a handsome compensation with which they can afford a significant improvement in living standards. What can be done to ensure their interests are taken care of? Is there any leeway to compromise between the two diverging views? To avoid any further recurrence of such a difficult position that only leads to confusion and polarisation, therefore, consultation with the residents should have taken place before any conservation or redevelopment plans are drawn.

Those conservation activists who have jumped on the bandwagon calling for the conservation of the old tenements on Wing Lee Street should be blamed for blindly pushing ahead their agenda at the expense of the interest of residents, who may only be a minority. While conservation is generally positive, it must not be forgotten that whether something is good or bad is ultimately defined by its impact for the people. What should be basic and universal is the respect for people, especially those who are directly affected by the issue in question. What is the point of conserving Wing Lee Street if this is little more than a reluctant give-in of the Government to populist public pressure? Why should we make the landlords and tenants pay for the costly conservation when local and overseas visitors will only disturb their quiet life and cause inconvenience, nuisance and even pollution?

Whatever the URA's final proposal on the conservation of Wing Lee Street, it is time for both the Government and the local community at large to take a step back and think carefully about our commitment to conservation. It is a long-term commitment that will affect not only ourselves but also the generations to come.

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