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Speech on community participation in planning in Hong Kong

The following is a speech (English only) delivered by the Secretary for Planning and Lands, Mr John C Tsang, at the conference on "Community Participation in Sustainable Development" today (May 25):

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have been invited to take part in this morning's conference on "Community Participation in Sustainable Development" organized by the British Council. I have chosen to speak on "Community Participation in Planning in Hong Kong" because sustainability is a key objective of planning and engaging the community is at the heart of our town planning process.

People-Oriented Planning

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Planning is for people. It is the people who know best what they want in a place where they work and live. Planners are merely people's representatives who have been delegated the task of meeting their diversed needs, and to do a decent job in this balancing act, we need to take on naturally a people-oriented approach. Planners need to ask themselves constantly : How should we prioritize the needs? Who should be the priority clients? How do we assess the demands of the vocal minority? How do we cater to the needs of the silent majority? Who should represent the legitimate interest of the masses?

These are difficult questions and we don't have answers that would suit everyone. After all, there is hardly ever a consensus community view on any issue. Planning affects different people in different ways, and the combination of possibilities is mind boggling. Individuals do not see things the same way, and different groups bear different interests, some more open and others more hidden. Some people are more interested. Others are more apathetic.

Planning is not a science. It is an art of communicating with people from all spectrum of the community, engaging them in an evolving process. This helps ensure that all the competing priorities can be satisfactorily represented, fully heard and thoroughly discussed. Translating these inputs into options for implementation then becomes an optimization exercise. Perfect solution is a luxury that is not available to the planning practitioners. Utopia is just there to remind us how far we are off the mark.

Participatory Approach to Planning in Hong Kong

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Engaging the public in town planning has been the Hong Kong way, and we have every intention of widening and deepening that process further.

Our planning system is organized according to different tiers of geographical specification. We have development strategies at the territorial and subregional levels, and statutory and administrative plans outlining broad land uses at the district and local levels. Guiding the preparation of these plans is the Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines. This is an administrative document which sets out the criteria for the preliminary determination of the scale, location and site requirements of various land uses and facilities. The system has been operating well for some years in providing opportunities for government to consult the general public.

Planning Studies

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For planning studies in general, the public consultation process starts when development options are generated. For the more important studies, we start even earlier. We would consult the public first on the scope and objectives of the study. We would consult again when the final recommendations are available.

Consultations are conducted in different forms. For most matters, we would employ public consultation fora in conveniently located venues for members of the public to express their views. This is supplemented by postings on the Planning Department web site to invite comments from those who cannot be present at these fora. This arrangement has been quite effective in generating a sensible dialogue with the public. For the more controversial subjects, we would, in addition to the public fora, organize separate focus group meetings for stakeholders. At the end of each consultation, we would prepare a Public Consultation Report summarizing the comments received as well as the Government's responses. This serves as a public record of the proceedings for transparency purposes and a tool for follow up work.

At the moment, we are carrying out wide ranging public consultations on the study entitled "Hong Kong 2030 : Planning Vision and Strategy". The aim of this study is to map out a sustainable planning framework to guide the future physical development of Hong Kong. The consultation is conducted in four stages. We have already completed the first two stages on the identification of our planning objectives and the collection of views on the key issues and the evaluative criteria for the formulation of the development options. We plan to consult the public again on the development options before a strategy is finally formulated.

On a smaller and less formal scale, we would also arrange briefings for individual target groups and standing government and non-government committees on subjects which require special expertise or professional advice. An example is the formulation of planning standards and guidelines for cultural facilities through consultation with various arts groups and grass root organizations. We have done similar briefings in formulating retail, open space and recreation standards.

Statutory Plan Making

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Statutory plans are prepared by the Town Planning Board under the Town Planning Ordinance. Preparation of statutory plans is usually preceded by a planning study which would go through an extensive consultation process. Statutory plans are exhibited for public comments in the draft stage, in the amendment stage and again in the approved plan stage. Persons affected by a statutory plan may object during any or all of the exhibition periods, and the objections would be considered and heard by the Town Planning Board. Draft plans are exhibited for a period of two months and for amendments, three weeks. After considering and hearing the objections, the plan would be submitted together with unwithdrawn objections to the Chief Executive-in-Council for a final decision.

Under the statutory planning system, we have been proactive in responding to all public comments, not just objections, raised during the exhibition period of the statutory plans. I would like to cite an interesting case that had aroused controversial debate in our community, and that is the statutory plan for the Central District Extension.

This plan was exhibited in draft form in 1998 proposing partial reclamation of the Victoria Harbour off Central District to meet imminent transport infrastructure needs and expansion of our central business district. The plan generated an emotional debate on the need to save our harbour from any further reclamation. Our planners went to overdrive striving to achieve a sensible balance between having to ease the perennial urban problem of congestion while preserving our harbour at the same time.

The intense debate prompted a review and modification of remaining harbour reclamation schemes, and in 1999, the original plan was amended with a much reduced scale of reclamation. We are now moving to the implementation stages. I would like to invite our overseas visitors here today to come visit us again in a few years' time, and join us on a walk along our beautiful harbour side promenade that is the result of community participation.

Planning Applications

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In Hong Kong, we also have a planning application system under the Town Planning Ordinance which allows for approval by the Town Planning Board for change in uses.

The current Town Planning Ordinance has no provision for public notification or consultation on planning applications. We have, nevertheless, instigated a practice to collect public views through the established network of District Offices which stand in the frontline of our community liaison network. We would provide the District Offices with information on specific planning applications together with development parameters, location plans and schematic development layouts so that those affected would have an opportunity to articulate their concerns.

A recent example concerns an application by a developer to build a hotel complex in Stanley. When we put the application out for the community's information, as we would usually do with other proposals, it was met with a tremendous tide of objection. The developer has since withdrawn the application before it even reaches the Town Planning Board.

These consultation processes are quite effective, but we are, of course, not complacent. Bureaucrats are not supposed to do that any more. We are currently reviewing the statutory planning procedures with a view to streamlining and shortening the town planning procedures even further, whilst at the same time promoting even greater public involvement in the plan making process. We are aiming to submit a bill to the Legislative Council at the end of the year to effect these intentions.

Limits to community participation

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We often ask ourselves whether there are limits to community participation? Is more better? Is less more? This is not intended to be rhetorical or philosophical. To us, it is a practical question that we need to address.

Naturally, time and resources would limit the degree of participation that we want. Public participation demands considerable resources and time which prolong the planning process. Many people consider the long process a development hurdle that results in unacceptable programming delays for the delivery of opportunities. To others, there is fear of loss of control because allowing more people of different interests to participate in the process would incite more conflicts making the situation more difficult to control and more difficult for satisfactory resolution.

Community participation is also limited by the nature of the subject to be consulted. Obviously, public consultation on issues of great sensitivity containing elements of confidentiality would be inappropriate. Public consultation on some issues at a premature stage can also lead to undesirable anxiety and speculation that might generate unease and block constructive discussions later on. Of course, this is not to say that public consultation should be totally avoided for these matters, but it has to be handled with extreme caution, and timing is critical.

Surprisingly though, our experience tells us that effective consultation can actually help identify supporters and reduce resistance from opponents, but getting the right stakeholders together and doing it with the right timing are essential. This would avoid the situation where conflicts only emerge when the project is at an advanced stage and considerable resources have already been spent. In the end, more time and resources would be wasted on defensive and remedial actions. So in effect, community participation, if done properly, is a conciliatory process that serves to facilitate ultimate implementation. It is an education process that serves to raise the community's awareness. It is also a community building exercise where different sectors of the community come together to identify their common goals. Above all, it is a learning process for everyone.

In Hong Kong, community participation is evolving. Planning is part of that integrative process, and it would only be natural for the planning system to encourage even greater community participation. Our commitment is to make the planning system even simpler, more open, more precise, more equitable, more accessible to all, and also more inclusive.

Thank you.

End/Saturday, May 25, 2002

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