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Speech on Revitalization of the Built Environment

Following is the speech by the Permanent Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands (Planning and Lands), Mr John C Tsang, at the Building Surveyors Conference 2002 of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors on "Revitalization of the Built Environment" today (October 12):

Mr Chan, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning. I have great pleasure in joining you today at the Building Surveyors Conference 2002.

The theme of today's Conference is "Revitalization of the Built Environment'. This is a well chosen theme, one that bears particular relevance to our community today. Revitalize the built environment we must. Otherwise, the community in which we live would be in danger of degenerating into sad oblivion.

This morning, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on rehabilitation as a mode of urban renewal and the importance of a public-private sector partnership in giving new life to our urban fabric. This is a subject that concerns all of us - the Government, the Urban Renewal Authority, the property owners and you, the building professionals. We all have key roles to play in the process of bringing about a built environment in Hong Kong that is full of life and vitality.

Background

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At present, there are over 9,000 private buildings in the Metro Area that are 30 years or older. In ten years' time, this number will increase by half to some 14,000 buildings. Whilst aged buildings should not be equated as a rule with dilapidation, it is evident that over the years, the problem of maintenance neglect has brought about alarming numbers of prematurely aging buildings. The problem is further complicated by the prevalence of unauthorized building works in these older buildings.

In the past, we have relied principally on redevelopment to address the issue of deterioration in the urban environment. We would simply demolish old buildings and replace them with new ones. That has been our mode of operation, but project-based redevelopment, by its very nature, tends to be piecemeal and carries little scope for district-wide improvement. The long lead time to complete the redevelopment process also makes the urban renewal programme unsustainable as urban renewal is outpaced by urban deterioration. In fact, instead of demolition and redevelopment, many of the old buildings can be completely renovated, brought back to their original splendour and still look forward to a long useful life given proper maintenance. Compared to redevelopment, rehabilitation causes much less disruption to the community and its residents, particularly to our senior citizens who prefer to remain in familiar surroundings. Rehabilitation also represents a quicker and more cost-effective way of addressing urban decay.

Urban Renewal Authority

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The URA is the vehicle we have employed to deal with urban renewal in our older communities. With its establishment in May 2001, the Government has taken on a paradigm shift in our approach. We have moved beyond the operating mode of the Land Development Corporation. Instead of requiring each urban renewal project to be individually financially viable, we are now aiming for a self-financing urban renewal programme in the longer term. This measure will enable the Authority to take on loss making projects that are worthwhile. To enable the programme to be sustainable, the Government has also introduced a package of measures to lend the necessary support. The Government will allow the URA to enjoy nominal premium for land granted for its redevelopment projects, and we have put in place a $10 billion commitment for capital injection into the URA over the next five years.

We have also drawn up a new mandate for the URA which prescribes the promotion of rehabilitation of older buildings, in addition to the preservation of buildings of historical, cultural and architectural interests as well as the traditional redevelopment of dilapidated buildings. The objective of this comprehensive approach is to improve the environment of the older urban areas, revitalize the deteriorating localities whilst preserving their unique characteristics in a holistic fashion.

Task Force on Rehabilitation

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Following this mandate, the URA has since its establishment been actively examining the feasibility of rehabilitation. In fact, the URA has earmarked resources in its first Corporate Plan for the purpose of rehabilitation and revitalisation efforts in the next five years.

In May 2002, the URA established a Task Force on Rehabilitation, under the capable leadership of Professor David Lung, to formulate a rehabilitation scheme in co-operation with relevant Government departments. The idea is for the URA to complement and enhance existing Government efforts in creating a renewed urban environment. The Task Force has now completed its study and the URA Board would examine the Task Force's proposals before submitting them to the Financial Secretary for approval by the end of the year in the context of the second draft Corporate Plan.

I understand that the URA is now in the process of fleshing out the principles and proposals for rehabilitation. I would like to take this window of opportunity to raise three ideas for consideration in the discussion process:

a) First of all, the URA could introduce in its target areas a co-ordinating scheme similar to the Co-ordinated Maintenance of Buildings Scheme of the Buildings Department. The scheme should encourage and motivate owners to recognise and accept responsibilities in maintaining their buildings properly. Besides co-ordination, the URA could offer logistical and technical support in carrying out necessary repair works. The URA could also help the owners to draw on the financial support from the Comprehensive Building Safety Improvement Loan Scheme as necessary. Given the concerted effort of both agencies, we should expect to see visible results quickly and prominently.

b) Secondly, the URA could consider street level revitalisation. The idea is to revive and strengthen the socio-economic and environmental fabric of areas around URA project areas in order to renew and regenerate the entire district. Redevelopment and rehabilitation projects have a rippling effect in improving and revitalising the areas in the vicinity. Time Square in Causeway Bay is a good example. The effect of redevelopment and rehabilitation can be enhanced and optimised if the URA would co-ordinate a package of well designed and environmentally friendly measures, including those dealing with traffic management, pedestrianisation, street furniture, lighting and landscaping to instill life and activity into the entire area. In turn, street revitalisation could become a catalyst for further rehabilitation efforts by other private building owners.

c) Lastly, the URA could consider focussing its rehabilitation and revitalisation efforts in one or more of its target areas in the first instance to demonstrate fully the possible impact of a holistic approach. These concrete examples could help show-case the merits of rehabilitation and entice property owners to take the initiative to invest in the maintenance of their own buildings.

I am sure you will hear more about this aspect of URA's work in future.

Meanwhile, I would like to underline that in sorting out the rehabilitation scheme for the Corporate Plan, it is important for the URA to bear in mind our 'three-pronged' approach to urban renewal. That is to say, the URA should examine how its work on rehabilitation should be integrated with redevelopment and preservation efforts in a holistic manner. We should approach an entire area instead of individual buildings or small blocks of buildings, and employ all these modes of renewal together in bringing about a new look for our community. In this regard, the community at large would like to see clear criteria being established on how buildings would be designated for the respective type of renewal action. It is only through such a comprehensive approach that we can optimise the use of our resources to renew our urban fabric in an effective and sustainable fashion.

Private Sector Participation

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I have spoken about some of the work the public sector is doing to revitalise our urban environment. It is clear to me, however, that the role of the public sector is limited when it comes to tackling the territory-wide problem. We are talking about the tens of thousands of buildings which are privately owned, and the public sector could not afford, even at the best of times, to shoulder the maintenance responsibility of all private buildings. The resource implication is simply too enormous.

Moreover, the principle that owners have the ultimate responsibility for looking after the well-being of their own buildings, and that proper maintenance is the duty of owners should continue to be observed. Building owners must be educated, encouraged and facilitated to carry out maintenance to their own buildings. The Government will play the dual role of a regulator as well as a facilitator. We need the involvement of the private sector and we will rely on market forces as much as possible to rejuvenate our urban landscape.

In pursuance of our objectives, we have expanded our enforcement against unauthorized building works by engaging more private sector building professionals in the investigation and enforcement against these eye-sores. By so doing, we have successfully increased many-fold the number of unauthorized building works cleared in 2001, compared with past years. We will continue to work closely with building professionals in our effort to create a safer built environment.

In addition to the many successful programmes of the Buildings Department, we are also planning to institute some form of building classification system as an incentive for owners to keep up their maintenance responsibility. Buildings attaining satisfactory standards will be rated higher, and that will result naturally in better market value. In this regard, the Buildings Department has commissioned a consultancy on a possible grading scheme for buildings to provide an easy and objective reference as to how a building fares in terms of maintenance. If found feasible, this system would provide encouragement for building owners to upkeep their buildings in order to safeguard the value of their properties. Proposals will be put forward for public consultation in due course. I hope that members of the Institute would generously provide us with their valuable advice.

Way Forward

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There is considerable room for cooperation between the public and the private sectors, and we will continue to explore common grounds where we would be able to build on each other's efforts. Revitalization of the built environment and transformation of the older urban areas to meet modern city living requirements is an immense challenge for all of us. The Government and the URA will need to work sensitively together in partnership with the building owners, developers and not the least, professionals like yourselves to make the regeneration of our older urban areas a success.

The HKIS has all along been taking a keen interest in urban renewal and building maintenance issues. Your Institute has provided us with many useful ideas and constructive comments in the past, and we appreciate them very much. We look to your continued support in helping Hong Kong rejuvenate our built environment and in realising our vision of becoming Asia's World City.

Thank you.

End/Saturday, October 12, 2002

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