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Secretary for Development's speech at Urban Renewal Authority seminar

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrier Lam, at the opening of the "Models and Challenges of Urban Renewal-Sharing of Asian Experience" seminar organised by the Urban Renewal Authority today (December 15):

Mr Barry Cheung, Chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority, distinguished speakers, guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It really gives me great pleasure to join you at the opening of this very important seminar organised by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) on "Models and Challenges of Urban Renewal - Sharing of Asian Experience". As some of you know, this is part of a series of activities organised by the Urban Renewal Authority as we proceed towards urban renewal version 3.0. A month ago Barry and myself officiated at a roving exhibition in order to encourage more Hong Kong people to participate in the understanding of this difficult task of urban renewal and also to take an active part in the Urban Renewal Strategy (URS) Review that my bureau is undertaking.

I would like to extend a warm welcome to distinguished speakers coming from Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai, Guangzhou and all participants in this seminar today. Comparative studies are very important in our understanding of this difficult yet very important task of urban renewal. It is also an important part of the Urban Renewal Strategy Review that we are conducting, and I look forward to joining some of my steering committee members on the URS Review to visit some of the cities that have been discussed at this seminar today. Therefore, to many of us who are involved in the URS Review, I think we can take this seminar as a sort of warm-up exercise.

In fact since taking on this job as the Secretary for Development about 18 months ago, and despite my pretty hectic schedule, I have been visiting quite a number of cities as part of my official duties. I visited Beijing, Shanghai, London, Melbourne, Sydney, New York, Nanjing and more recently last weekend I was in Guangzhou. Every time I went to these cities I looked at subjects which are very close to my heart and urban renewal, together of course with heritage, is one of those. The first thing that strikes me is almost in every city that I have visited urban renewal and heritage conservation often go hand in hand. That's why also in the 4Rs practised by the Urban Renewal Authority, two of the Rs in terms of preservation and revitalisation are an important part of the strategy. But many of you in the audience may not realise that it is actually for the first time in this third term of the HKSAR Government that heritage and urban renewal are brought under one roof. The heritage policy and the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance have been in effect for over 35 years. They are often being treated as part of culture and sometimes part of recreation, but never like what we now have heritage and urban regeneration come together under one roof. This is an institutional advantage which I would treasure and I would make sure that we could leverage on this institutional advantage to do better both in terms of urban renewal and in terms of heritage conservation.

Experience sharing like what we are doing today on this Asia experience sharing is important because it helps cross-fertilisation; it helps people who are involved in this matter to exchange expertise as well as their sentiments towards this very important subject. It is also a wake-up call at least for myself, whenever I go visit cities I realise how much catching-up Hong Kong has to do on both urban regeneration and also on heritage. And I just want to share with you this morning on several common features that I have picked up during those experience-sharing exercises, both in terms of literature research and also in terms of my overseas visits in the last 18 months. There are five of those common features.

First is in urban renewal, there is no "one model fits all". In fact I have taken this phrase from a former Chairman of URA Mr Edward Cheng. Edward mentioned that there is actually no one model fits all in urban renewal because every city has its own sense of place. Every city has its unique context and unique characteristics. Every city has its own, very different political system and governance issues. And that's why in urban regeneration one really has to look for flexibility in adapting whatever we learn throughout the world to the Hong Kong context. So even with the 4R strategy of the Urban Renewal Authority that I have just mentioned, it has to be applied with a great degree of flexibility.

The second feature that I have picked up is urban renewal cannot be 100% market-driven. Despite the fact that I'm a believer in free market and in the capitalist system's way of doing things, as you know I have been in the finance job for over seven years, I think there is an indisputable and indispensible role of Government in urban regeneration because after all, this is about the people, this is about providing a quality city environment for the people that we care and we love. The Government has an important role in terms of providing the legal framework, the powers that needed in order to do urban regeneration. Sometimes we have to resort to empowering the authority to do compulsory land acquisition in order to overcome hurdles in scattered ownership and other problems. Government also have to provide financial support and despite the fact that we normally expect financial prudence or self-financing philosophies, there is certainly a degree of government financial support that is needed in every city's urban regeneration work. The Government also has to step in when we need to resolve conflicts, when we have to be an arbitrator and when we have to bring together different stakeholders in a more coherent framework. So in Hong Kong's context, urban renewal probably can't be what we called the positive non-interventionism. We have to interfere where there is a good cause. In fact, since taking over the portfolio as the Secretary for Development, I don't think anybody will regard me as adopting a non-intervention policy towards URA. Maybe it's the reverse that I have been interfering a bit too much with the Board's business to the extent of doing press conferences jointly with Barry from time to time. But this is really to demonstrate the Government's support for the URA and my involvement, my personal involvement in this very important topic.

The third feature is urban renewal, especially successful and effective urban renewal, could not be done as a task. It is a mission. So like all missionaries, people who are involved in urban renewal have to have a conviction and a passion towards urban renewal. Successful urban renewal projects require visionary planning. It calls for perseverance, passion and conviction, and the spirit of making the impossible possible. Again this phrase is not coined by me. I pick this up from Abraham Shek, the former Chief Executive of the LDC. Because it is by definition such a complicated process, it is multifaceted. There are conflicts between landlords and tenants, conflicts and different wishes and vested interests among the commercial tenants and landlords versus the domestic and residential tenants and landlords.

Development versus preservation is another important but extremely difficult balance to strike in urban regeneration. I think it is all these complications that have led the first Managing Director of the URA Mr Billy Lam to conclude his successful years of work in URA by describing it as "multi-minded" (三心兩意) - you have to be caring, patient, determined, sincere yet creative. I'm sure in time to come, Quinn Law, the current MD, will have a way to sum up his own experience as the MD of the Urban Renewal Authority.

The fourth feature is a respect for the past, and a respect for history. Urban renewal is not wiping a slate clean. Urban renewal is to provide a better and more vibrant place that people could recognise, people could associate this place, present and future, with this place's past. And that's why I congratulate and commend the URA, especially in recent years, for putting a lot of efforts and attention on preservation as well as on preserving the city's past and the cityscape. Barry has just mentioned there's a pawn shop which has been turned into a vibrant restaurant which is very difficult to book these days, and I'm happy to say that my Government colleagues, the Administrative Service Association has managed to "monopolise" this Pawn Shop today for a Christmas party.

Respect for past and history is also to ensure that people live and work in a place where they are familiar with, that they have a lot of stories to tell. It's also about the duty to preserve heritage for future generations. This is what the former Chairman of the URA Lau Wah-sum has told me repeatedly that we don't destroy, we are there to preserve, and preserving it not only for ourselves, but for our future generations.

The last feature that is very common in all cities doing urban renewal is the increasing need to engage the people. After all we are renewing a place and a city for the people who live there. So the willingness to listen and to engage has become more and more important. Sometimes for many cities like Hong Kong we have learnt it a tough way with the social tension, the confrontation and protest actions we have seen over these years. But we should not despair or complain, this is only part of the process. I was with my Macao counterpart at a conference in Guangzhou over this weekend and the first thing he spoke to me is "Mrs Lam, we are about to have a similar Queen's Pier incident and we are being confronted with people who don't want the Macao Government to destroy things that they treasure." Dr C K Law, of course, C K is a good friend for many years, has said that successful consultation and involvement of the public requires listening, listening without preconceived framework -- open to public' s views and listen with sincerity. And I can assure you that both the Development Bureau and the URA will take his advice as our guiding principles.

If I may now turn to the Urban Renewal Strategy that we are undertaking a review and it struck me, how similar or how important the five common features that I've shared with you are and have equal relevance to the review we are conducting. First is respect for history. This review, I must emphasise, is not conducted because we are unhappy with what has been done in the past twenty years. I have a lot of respect for the work of the LDC as well as the work of the URA since its creation in 2001. The hard work, the historical context that we are in, is something that we value, in taking forward the next generation of urban renewal. Together, LDC and URA, have already commenced 51 projects, improving the living conditions of over 40,000 people and creating for Hong Kong public 40,000 m² of public open space, as well as 80,000 m² of public facilities, with another 500 buildings rehabilitated. This is a historical merit, a fact that we cannot ignore. And so, in conducting this review, let me say it again, this is not a critique of the past. This is a value of the past contribution which enables us to look ahead.

The second feature is of course engaging people. I have not seen one single public consultation carried out by the government that has put engaging our people and jointly discussing with the people so high on its agenda. We are taking two years. People say that we are adopting a delaying tactic because by the end of two years, I will be reaching the end of my term as a principal official. But let me assure you that it is not the intention. The intention is we allow ourselves and allow the community enough time to debate and deliberate on a very important subject that will last many decades later. We are taking this forward with what we call a three-stage-process. We are now towards the end of the first stage of envisioning, trying to set the agenda, trying to identify the issues that we need to tackle. In the second stage, we have a totally open mind. Sometimes having an open mind and no preconceived agenda may not be a good thing. I have been criticised sometimes in some forums that the fact that you don't have any preconceived views means you have no views. That is a bit tautological. But I just want to assure you that I have a lot of personal views about urban regeneration. But this is a public engagement exercise which will not bear good fruit if the official-in-charge tries to impose her own personal views on the subject.

We are also trying different types of techniques or tools in order to engage the public. So the usual public forums, town hall meetings, opinion surveys and web discussions are adopted. The latest idea is to open an Idea's Shop in Wan Chai, Tai Yuen Street where we happened to have some spare premises. So this is a walk-in opportunity for people to share with us their views on urban regeneration. We have just launched an invitation for partnering organisations. In other words, we welcome District Councils, schools, concern groups to organise activities to also stimulate discussions and knowing that many of these organisations are not very resourceful, we will provide a modest sum to enable the partnering organisations to organise activities to complement our efforts in taking forward the public engagement.

The third feature is, as I mentioned earlier, there is no one model fits all. There is no one size fits all. So we are taking forward this review in search of a Hong Kong solution. It has to reflect Hong Kong's characteristics. It has to reflect our strength and our limitations brought about by the shortage of land. And also it has to have respect for the heritage and other matters of historical significance. It is true that we have commissioned research studies to look at Asian experience. It is probable that we will go on overseas visits to learn more about other cities' experiences. But at the end of the day, we have to find our own unique Hong Kong solution.

The fourth is Government has an indisputable role in this URS review. People sometimes tend to confuse whether this is a Government review or a URA review. The confusion arises because I rely on URA to provide all the money. I just don't have enough money within my bureau to commission studies, organise forums, to pay for this and pay for that. URA has kindly agreed to be my resource agency to give me the money but I can assure you that this is a Government review. This is a 100% Government review. The review is launched by Hong Kong SAR Government and as the responsible principal official, I accept political responsibility if the review does not go well. URA plays a supporting, a very important supporting as well as a resource role. The Government's role will of course feature more prominently later on when we reach discussions about finances, the role of the Government in financing URA and whether there is room to re-examine some of the financial principles that we have laid down in the first urban renewal strategy. I am sure that even on this matter, we have an open mind. I have not been given any constraint or parameter by the Financial Secretary that this review must be conducted on a cost-neutral basis.

Finally, to us in Development Bureau, I think Tommy and Laurie are in the audience, the URS review is a mission. It's a mission we are undertaking with passion because we believe that this is crucial to uplifting people from their poor living environment. We believe this is essential to arresting urban decay as very soon we will have close to 10,000 buildings over 40 years of age in Hong Kong. This review is also pivotal to creating harmony in society because if we do it well and have learned from some of the lessons, then perhaps we will no longer see confrontations and the tension that we have seen in the past.

There is actually very little originality in what I have just shared with you. All the statements and phases and descriptions are taken from interviews and messages from former URA Chairman, former key persons involved in the urban renewal work, contained in a wonderful book which I will recommend to you. This is a wonderful book produced by URA to commemorate the 20th anniversary of urban renewal work in Hong Kong, also titled "Towards Urban Renewal 3.0". I read this book from cover to cover yesterday. These are actually notes jotted down as I read the book, not a speech. The book is important not only because of these wonderful interviews of former URA Chairman, former MDs and all the board members, congratulation messages and so on. The book is naturally important because it contains a historical account on urban renewal in Hong Kong. But more importantly, because it also contains stories of individuals, of men in the streets affected by urban renewal in Hong Kong. It is a very well-written book and highly readable. I am sure you will, each of one will get a souvenir copy from the Urban Renewal Authority. The book contains stories of people who have served Hong Kong community well with passion, determination and dedication over the last few decades.

I take this opportunity therefore to add my thanks to every one of you, men and women, involved in the former Land Development Corporation, Urban Renewal Authority and of course our key partner the Hong Kong Housing Society over these years. I look forward to your continued wise counsel and your support as we take urban renewal into version 3.0, achieving what the current URA Chairman Barry Cheung has said, the needed sensible balance.

Thank you very much.

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