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Task Force on Tree Management releases report

The Task Force on Tree Management led by the Chief Secretary for Administration released its report today (June 29), making recommendations on the institutional framework, new tree risk assessment arrangements, expertise and training, community involvement, public education, complaint handling and provision of resources.

Speaking at a press conference on the recommendations today, the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Henry Tang, elaborated on the guiding principle and approach to tree preservation as well as setting out a series of recommendations on various fronts.

Mr Tang said people in Hong Kong loved trees and every effort was made to plant and properly preserve them.  "When trees have problems, we will make best possible effort to save them," he said. 

However, he pointed out that trees, like other living organisms, had a natural cycle.  They grew, aged, became weak and died.  Their growth was subject to both internal constraints as well as external or environmental factors.  When a tree posed imminent danger to life and property, it would only be prudent to remove the threat without delay.  Felling the tree would be required so as not to jeopardise public safety.  "In essence, public safety is of utmost importance," Mr Tang said.

Apart from public safety, Mr Tang said that the preservation of trees had to take into account other policy considerations in the interest of the community. "For instance, in the consideration of remedial measures when a tree is suffering from problems, we have to consider the health conditions of the tree, the value of the tree, the expected chance/duration of survival upon taking of remedial actions on the one hand, and the costs and effort on the other. 

"In Hong Kong where respect for private property rights is enshrined in the Basic Law, we also have to strike a pragmatic balance between tree preservation and protection of private property rights.  While we are keen to protect trees, it would be quite controversial to do so indiscriminately without giving due regard to the owners' wish," he said. 

Although the current review emanated from the concern over public safety, in the course of its deliberations, Mr Tang said the Task Force recognised that tree safety could not be tackled in isolation through management and maintenance without putting this work in the overall context of the Government’s greening and landscape policy. 

He said that these considerations had guided the work of the Task Force and its recommendations. The key recommendations made by the Task Force are set out below. 

Review of Institutional Framework

On institutional framework, Mr Tang said that over the years, the Government has adopted an 'integrated approach' in assigning responsibilities for preserving and maintaining all vegetation on Government land to relevant departments. Under this approach, tree maintenance is part and parcel of the duty of the department which uses and manages that particular piece of land or facility.

"The 'integrated approach' is generally efficient and cost effective, although there is room for improvement.  A totally centralised approach in which tree management will be taken up by one single 'government department' is neither desirable nor practical given the large number of trees all over the territory.  Yet, the Task Force recognises the need for a central authority and a holistic and visionary approach to tackle tree management in a comprehensive and sustainable manner," he said. 

To enhance the current institutional framework to better co-ordinate the work of different departments, the Development Bureau (DEVB) being the existing policy Bureau overseeing the greening policy, will take up the overall policy responsibility for greening, landscape and tree management.  In order to support this expanded role of DEVB, a new Tree Management Office and a Greening and Landscape Office will be set up in the bureau. The former will be the central authority and focal point for co-ordination to ensure more effective implementation of the "integrated approach". It will also deal with those complex cases which cannot be adequately dealt with by departments.  The latter will be responsible for central coordination of greening and landscaping efforts. 

At the department level, a new tree unit will be set up in the Lands Department to enable it to discharge its duties without having to seek expert advice from other departments.  The resource requirements of other departments will also be assessed to enable them to effectively implement the Task Force's recommendations.  

The Task Force also recommends that expert panels should be set up comprising experts from both locally and outside Hong Kong to provide the needed expertise in both policy and operational aspects of tree management as well as greening and landscape design.

"The two new offices at the bureau level and the executive departments under the 'integrated approach' will have clear delineation of duties. Existing guidelines promulgated over the years on a range of tree-related topics at the central as well as departmental levels will be reviewed by the new Tree Management Office in a comprehensive manner. The new arrangements will provide clear administrative mechanisms to all parties concerned for them to efficiently and effectively discharge their respective duties and bring about an improvement to the existing situation", Mr Tang said.

New Tree Risk Assessment Arrangements

Alongside with the new institutional framework, the Task Force has devised a new tree risk assessment arrangements based on a dual approach to better protect public safety.  Departments having a tree management role will first adopt an “Area Basis” assessment to identify those areas where members of public will be subject to significant risk if a tree fails. They will then adopt a “Tree Basis” assessment on those important/problematic trees based on a newly devised form with particular assessment on the risk angle.  

"Using this approach, the Government will be able to build up a database of trees over time, and conduct monitoring work systematically and comprehensively", Mr Tang said. 

Training

On the training aspect, the objective is to strengthen training at both the management and supervisory/frontline level. A Training Committee will be set up under the new Tree Management Office to plan staff training in a comprehensive, strategic and continuing manner. The office will also liaise with local tertiary education institutions, Vocational Training Council, Construction Industry Council Training Academy and other training providers on the possibility of strengthening the provision of related education and training courses. 

"The review has covered training both for staff within Government as well as personalities in the private sector, so as to ensure a professional task force in the industry of tree management", Mr Tang said.

Review of Legislation

The Task Force has devoted a lot of efforts in examining the existing legislation with provisions applicable to tree management and deliberated on whether it was necessary to introduce a new tree ordinance or amend any existing ordinance. 

The Task Force has considered that for trees on Government land, improvement measures would be undertaken by government departments and in general, there would not be any major problem.  For trees on private land, the Task Force noted that the Government had already included "tree preservation clauses" and "landscape clauses" in land leases since the 1970's and mid 1980's.  In the case of redevelopment, there is also an opportunity for Government to impose new requirements in regard to tree preservation via the planning regime or through the process of lease modification.     

After careful consideration, the Task Force considers existing regime generally adequate and recommends that there is no need to introduce any legislative change at this stage and efforts should be channelled to the administrative means proposed to improve co-ordination, enhance tree risk assessment, upgrade expertise and involve the community.  The need for legislative amendments will be kept under review having regard to the operational experience of the new improvement measures recommended by the Task Force. 

Community Involvement

As the community can play a significant role in helping to preserve trees in Hong Kong, the Task Force recommends more community involvement programmes and public education activities be organised.  The District Councils and the local community will also be the most important partners in this aspect.  

Complaint Handling

To handle tree-related complaints from the public efficiently, the "1823" hotline will serve as the central point to receive public complaints on tree management in general.  It will ensure timely assignment of complaints to the responsible departments, monitor case progress and keep complainants updated in the process.

Implementation

Upon the release of the report, bureaus and departments concerned will follow up on the recommendations.  The Development Bureau will co-ordinate the acquisition of necessary resources under the established mechanism and make preparation for the setting up of the new Tree Management Office and the Greening and Landscape Office as soon as practical.
 
"We hope that with the collaborative efforts of the community, we will promote our city's greening for the safe enjoyment of all," Mr Tang said.

The Task Force, comprising relevant bureaus and departments, has examined a range of issues regarding tree management in Hong Kong in the past three months, addressing in particular concerns about the public safety aspects of tree management expressed by the Coroner's Court relating to a fatal tree collapse case in Stanley and the jury’s recommendations.  The full report of the Task Force is available on the website of the Development Bureau (http://www.devb.gov.hk/en/home/report_of_the_task_force_on_tree_management.pdf).

Ends/Monday, June 29, 2009
Issued at HKT 18:12

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