Speech on Town Planning (Amendment) Bill (English only)

The following is a speech delivered by the Secretary for Planning and Lands, Mr John C Tsang, at the spring reception of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners this evening (February 18):

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here this evening to join all of you at the spring reception of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners. I must, first of all, wish everyone here a busy, constructive, harmonious, healthy, safe, peaceful and very prosperous Year of the Horse.

Taking stock at the beginning of the year is not just a habit of rural communities, something that is only practised by those who work the earth. For us urban bureaucrats and part time gardeners, spring is also a good time to review what we have done in the past year, and to plan ahead what we would like to achieve in the coming year. This evening I wish to share with you what we intend to do in the coming year with a controversial subject that has been left in abeyance for some time.

As practitioners, you will agree that the current planning approval process, which is the result of decades of evolution and accumulation, is a complex web of statutory and administrative challenges. We have been reviewing and proposing changes to the system since the late 1980s, but with the rapid pace of development in Hong Kong, we have been lagging behind. There is a clear need to look again at these procedures creatively and make bold changes to facilitate the processing of development proposals in a more efficient and effective manner. We need to keep pace with the expectations of the community.

You may recall that after a comprehensive review of the existing Town Planning Ordinance, which was first enacted in 1939, we introduced a comprehensive piece of legislation into the Legislative Council in 2000. We were not able to complete consideration of the Bill even after nine tedious meetings of the Bills Committee. We failed to achieve general consensus on many of the specific proposals, but it was commonly agreed that we should seek to streamline the planning procedures.

After the dissolution of the Bills Committee in May 2000, we reviewed all the proposals again in light of the Bills Committee's concerns and the public comments received. Views on certain issues remained so diverse that they do not appear to be capable of converging anywhere. We need to involve the stakeholders again in finding common grounds and identifying innovative solutions. This will be a lengthy exercise.

Meanwhile, we need to deal with the urgent task of improving efficiency in our town planning system. We have seen clear support for that in the legislative process in 2000. In the event, we intend to put forward an Amendment Bill to address the efficiency issues that are considered to be of great importance to the community. In other words, we are carrying out the legislative exercise in stages. We will deal first with matters that we have been able to achieve general consensus.

In the next few months, we will embark on a series of consultations with key stakeholders, like yourselves, on specific proposals. Then we will proceed to prepare instructions for the law draftsman to set out the amendment provisions for the consideration of LegCo. We would like to introduce a bill into LegCo by the end of this calendar year or early next year.

We have not prepared the specific details of the Bill yet, but I would like to share with you the principles on which the provisions will be based. We want to move towards a much more efficient, effective, open and user-friendly system. The main elements of the Amendment Bill will include streamlining the planning approval procedures, expediting the plan-making process, enhancing the openness and user-friendliness of the system and strengthening planning enforcement control.

We wish to expedite the development approval process by exempting the need of planning permission from certain minor amendments to approved development schemes and by enabling further delegation of powers and functions of the Town Planning Board. We wish to promote greater public involvement and a more open planning process by allowing applications for amendments to statutory plans, and requiring that the landowner should be informed if a planning application affecting his land is submitted by another party.

On the plan-making process, we wish to achieve a reasonable balance between public participation and efficiency by simplifying the statutory procedures for resolving objections to a draft plan, and by substantially shortening the processing time. We also wish to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness in enforcement control against unauthorized developments in the rural areas.

The Amendment Bill is the first step in achieving a better, simpler and more user-friendly system. There are still many issues that require deeper thoughts and major decisions by the Government. Some of these issues include making public applications for bad neighbour uses, provision for charging fees for planning applications, the organization and functions of the Town Planning Board and the designation of Special Design Areas. We are not brushing these issues aside. They are highly controversial, and we need more time to consider them comprehensively and to find common grounds among the stakeholders. We intend to deal with them in the following years in separate amendment bills.

For now, we shall focus on streamlining the statutory procedure to avoid unnecessary delay in the development process. Improved customer services for the stakeholders and improved productivity through reduction in time and cost incurred in the development process will certainly help economic development in our society. This is our grand plan for the coming year, and I look forward to getting your input in the exercise.

The Year of the Horse is about moving forward, and we must have the courage and strength to challenge the hurdles laid before us. We share the same aspirations, and together, I have no doubt that we will be able to plow through the obstacles and identify a much improved planning system for our community.

Thank you and Happy New Year!

End/Monday, February 18, 2002