(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2003-11-19 )
For the last three months, the heated debate on harbour reclamation has had many twists and turns. Public rallies were held; signature campaigns were launched; court battles were fought; legislators' stands were questioned; even media heroes have come and gone. Yet one puzzle remains: the government has not made any serious attempt to respond to the rising public aspirations, except to say that it is listening.
Either the public's voice has not been loud enough, or the government's hearing aid is defective. Neither is good for Hong Kong ; even less so for a society that badly needs a consensus to move ahead.
Senior officials from the Planning Department should be commended for standing up in front of the public to explain their case for reclamation. Yet on closer examination, no official has put forward any serious data to justify their central argument for reclamation: the need for the Central-Wan Chai bypass. The silence of the Transport Department is particularly disconcerting.
The need for publishing new data is obvious. The government has promised to scrap all harbour reclamation plans except those in Central, Wan Chai and southeast Kowloon . It has also promised that no commercial development will be allowed on newly reclaimed land. This means original traffic projections, which included those generated by the now-abandoned Western district reclamation, and other commercial developments, will no longer be valid.
It is only common sense that in such a dramatically changed scenario, a new cost-benefit analysis must be conducted. After all, the last feasibility study for the bypass was undertaken in 1989. Can anyone guarantee that the socio-economic assumptions made 14 years ago are still valid today? Can anyone be so cavalier as to spend $15 billion of taxpayers' money without taking a closer look? Without pre-judging whether the need for the bypass can be proven or not, there is no doubt that the public deserves more detailed information from transport officials.
The government's inaction is indicative of a bigger flaw: the lack of public participation in environmental decision-making. Current controversies in harbour reclamation and the West Kowloon Cultural District development alike have shown that the existing public consultation process is grossly inadequate. Hong Kong people have said loud and clear that they do not wish to leave important decisions concerning their urban space entirely in the hands of bureaucrats.
If officials are serious about upholding Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's commitment, in his 1999 policy speech, to sustainable development, they would do well to familiarise themselves with Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, signed by China along with 177 countries at the 1992 Earth Summit. This is the famous access principle, applicable to environmental policymaking: every individual's right to have access to information, access to participation in decision-making and access to judicial proceedings for redress and remedy. Public consultation in its current form, coupled with a top-down approach in town planning, falls far short of the standard.
Getting people involved is not a purist's dream. International examples abound. Take, for instance, the other Victoria Harbour - on Vancouver Island in Canada . An independent, non-profit Harbour Authority was set up last year to own and manage harbour assets. The board of the authority is made up of representatives from governments, chambers of commerce and indigenous peoples. The Canadian public is not merely consulted; it is there to have its representatives make decisions, independent of the political process.
No doubt Hong Kong will develop its own model of governance when a Harbour Authority is set up, as is being demanded by many sectors. Yet a partnership approach engaging the private sector and civil society groups seems the only realistic chance for sustainable development.
For those of us who are wary of the divisive force that the recent controversy may inflict upon society, the best hope is to turn people's energy into a positive drive to develop and embrace a new and innovative mechanism for community-based urban design, public participation and consensus-building.
The People's Council for Sustainable Development, in partnership with four universities, three professional institutions and nine civil society groups, will launch a platform later this month for citizens to share their collective memories of the harbour, review the history of reclamation, examine constraints and opportunities, unleash their creative power and begin building a consensus through a public-hearing process.
In Hong Kong 's town planning history, this is an unprecedented attempt to empower people and foster participation through such a broad alliance in the third sector.
When provided with relevant information, Hong Kong people can be trusted to make wise decisions. It is, however, important that all planning constraints and potential opportunities are laid out for the public in a clear and coherent manner. Civil society has taken a lead to facilitate this process, but it is not too late for the government to play a constructive role by providing detailed information and participating in the process.
In the long run, whether reclamation is justified, whether reclaimed land should be used for road-building or for a waterfront promenade alone, and whether a statutory shoreline should be declared, will prove less important than establishing a process which truly reflects community value and allows the public to decide the future of its urban space.
A community-planning approach, with broad-based participation, has a much higher chance of success in building a consensus for the way forward than the current half-hearted persuasion by an embattled government. A successful consensus-building process will benefit everyone, including those for and against reclamation.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development.