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Conservation and development

Hong Kong is a small and densely populated city.  With rapid economic and social development, there is only limited space for further development.  As a result, many old buildings have to be demolished to make way for development and for improvement of our living environment.  On the other hand, the community attaches great importance to the conservation of cultural and built heritage.  Some view conservation and development as two competing claims.  Actually, the balance between conservation and development is not a zero-sum game.  In recent years, the Government has made great efforts in conservation through the formulation of policies and investment of resources.

At the end of last month, we organised an International Conference on Heritage Conservation entitled “Latest Movements in Heritage Conservation: Global Vision and Local Outlook” in collaboration with the Architectural Conservation Programmes of the University of Hong Kong.  The conference attracted over 300 participants including academics and professionals in the field of heritage conservation.  In addition to the Vice-Minister of Culture and Director-General of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, Mr Li Xiaojie, we also invited the Assistant Director-General for Culture of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Mr Francesco Bandarin, and many other renowned experts on heritage conservation from around the world to attend the conference and deliver speeches.

At the conference, overseas and local experts exchanged views on the latest trends in heritage conservation, including ways to conserve our historic buildings, particularly privately-owned buildings, amid rapid urban development.  The experts pointed out that like Hong Kong, many highly developed cities such as London and Paris are also facing the same dilemma. Issues such as the definition of conservation, the interpretation of and aspirations for blending the old and the new, the conservation approaches towards historic buildings of different eras, etc., are constantly evolving and have sparked heated debates in recent years.

Furthermore, the experts believe that while there are always innovative initiatives for the conservation and revitalisation of historic buildings, most of them are still highly controversial.  The community have yet to reach a consensus and identify a universal formula for conservation.  Nevertheless, under intense market pressure for redevelopment, the governments of many developed cities have adopted various “carrot and stick” approaches in conserving historic buildings as far as practicable. Examples of a “stick” approach include the enhancement of conservation through town planning as well as environmental and heritage impact assessments, while a “carrot” approach would involve the provision of different economic incentives and subsidy schemes to encourage conservation.

In addition, experts at the conference also discussed the concept of “historic urban landscape” raised by conservationists in recent years, which explores ways to preserve the distinctive features of an ever-changing city.

As announced in the Policy Address early this year, the policy on the conservation of privately-owned historic buildings should be reviewed in light of the experience gained over the past few years.  This will include formulating a set of more detailed mechanisms and criteria for determining the extent and means to use public resources for the conservation of privately-owned historic buildings, and studying whether there is a need to enhance conservation of such buildings in the context of town planning.  As such, we have invited the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB), our key conservation adviser and partner, to plan and conduct the policy review with us.

In this regard, I know that the AAB has set up two working groups to conduct in-depth discussions on the various issues raised in the policy review, including the policy and strategy aspects, as well as the technical aspects.  In the last six months or so, the AAB has, in preparation for the consultation paper, conducted some 20 meetings and exchanged views with over 150 stakeholders, including Legislative Council Members, the Chairmen and Vice-chairmen of District Councils, professional organisations, concern groups, owners of privately-owned historic buildings, business chambers, academics, etc.

The drafting of the consultation paper is in progress.  The AAB members have devoted lots of time and energy to the work.  The policy review involves a significant number of stakeholders and covers a wide range of issues, which include the aforementioned heritage conservation issues that raise concerns worldwide, ways that the community as a whole can bear the costs for conservation, ways to conserve built heritage while respecting private property rights, ways to cope with the pressure of social and economic development, as well as ways to encourage private owners to conserve their historic buildings.

The AAB has repeatedly revisited the content, structure and design of the consultation paper to make it easier for the community to understand the existing mechanisms for heritage conservation and to put forward their views.  Therefore, the AAB needs more time to complete the work, and it is expected that the consultation paper and related suggestions will be submitted to the Government early next year.  We hope that all of you will share your views with us.  I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the Chairman and members of the AAB for their tireless efforts in the review of heritage conservation policy.

29 December, 2013