Speech by Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands at Legco motion debate on "Facilitating urban development"

The following is the translation of the speech of the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Mr Michael Suen, at the motion debate on "Facilitating Urban Development" moved by Hon Patrick Lau Sau-shing at the Legislative Council (Legco) today (June 28):

Madam President,

Let me thank Hon Patrick Lau Sau-shing for today's motion which gives us the chance to discuss in Legco the way to facilitate urban development. Let me also thank Members for their views on this subject. In fact, most of the views of Hon Patrick Lau and other Members are in line with the Government's existing or long-term policy.

Para (a) of the motion moved by Hon Patrick Lau highlights "on the premise of sustainable development". This is the thumb rule of the Government on policy formulation. Since December 2001, the Government has put in place a sustainable development assessment mechanism for internal compliance. All bureaux and departments are required to conduct sustainable development assessment for newly implemented major policies and projects. Moreover, a high-level Council for Sustainable Development is established to promote sustainable development in Hong Kong.

To achieve sustainable development, good town planning is needed to guide and control development and use of land so as to provide quality living environment and promote economic development. In conducting planning studies and preparing town plans, we will fully consider how to properly use the scarce land resources to match economic development and future population growth, as well as the demand for various land uses and community facilities. The compatibility of urban design with the landscape, the traffic and transport aspects and environmental quality as well as the capacity of the infrastructures are all important considerations.

The motion moved by Hon Patrick Lau highlights the Study on Hong Kong 2030: Planning Vision and Strategy (HK 2030 Study). This is a strategic study covering the development of the whole territory, which aims to provide a planning framework for land use, transport and environment and forms the appropriate basis for the preparation of regional development strategy and district plans.

The HK 2030 Study is divided into four phases, with the first three phases having completed. Extensive public consultations on the study results of each phase were also conducted. The fourth phase is actively in progress. The key substances of the main report will be released and a new round of public consultation undertaken early next year.

In formulating Hong Kong's long-term development strategy, we have to take the planning and development of our Nation as well as the neighbouring cities into consideration. The references in the National 11th Five-Year Plan to the position of Hong Kong as well as the interaction with the Mainland coincide with HK 2030 Study's key planning objectives of strengthening links with the Mainland and enhancing economic competitiveness. Moreover, Hong Kong and Shenzhen have conducted exchanges on Shenzhen 2030 Development Strategy and HK 2030 Study so as to facilitate coordinated development between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

Apart from long-term development strategy, the Government will also conduct different types of regional or thematic planning and studies to cater for the ever changing social economic situation as well as the aspiration of the public for enhancing the quality of living.

There is a mechanism to facilitate the implementation of minor works projects more quickly and flexibly. Such mechanism not only enhances the community facilities and living environment, it also creates job opportunities for the construction industry. Take for example the greening projects in Tsim Sha Tsui and Central worked out in mid 2005, landscaping planting is now in progress. The formulation of similar greening master plans for identified districts in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island will continue.

In conducting planning studies and preparing town plans, the Government refers to the Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines (HKPSG). The HKPSG provides guidelines on various scopes and standards of Hong Kong urban design and makes recommendations concerning the planning objectives, concepts and appropriate parameters for different districts. For example, it lays down stepped height restriction for the protection of the ridgelines and the Harbour view, reserves and improves the waterfront areas for public enjoyment of the Harbour view and leisure activities, creates landmarks, ventilation corridors and view corridors, enhances streets and provides green open spaces, develop people-oriented pedestrian areas and preserve buildings of cultural and heritage values, etc.

In addition to urban design, the Planning Department (PlanD) has completed the Feasibility Study for the Establishment of Air Ventilation Assessment System in 2005. In future, in conducting studies and preparing new outline zoning plans (OZPs) and major revisions to OZPs in connection with new development areas or redevelopment projects, the Government will be required to conduct air ventilation assessment so as to help in selecting options and setting appropriate planning parameters.

Since the Town Planning (Amendment) Ordinance took effect, no matter it is plan making or planning application approval, transparency has been significantly enhanced and the public can participate more directly. It is worth noting that these initiatives do not hold up the planning application approval and plan making process. On the contrary, we believe that early incorporation of public views will help smooth implementation of the development projects. On the other hand, we have added new provisions to streamline the planning application approval process with a view to enhancing the efficiency. Furthermore, the Town Planning Board (TPB) has issued guidelines to help applicants to submit more flexible concept plans so that they can enjoy more flexibility in working out the detailed design in the future.

On the whole approval process of the development projects, there is in existence an inter-departmental review task force which seeks to speed up the process. Based on the findings of the task force, the Buildings Department (BD) has issued practice notes to promulgate measures to streamline and speed up the plan approval process. These measures include: the setting up of a consultation mechanism prior to the formal submission of plans for approval and allowing the professionals to participate in the consultation meeting; streamlining the approval procedures for a myriad of plans in order to focus on more important items, etc.

On land-related approvals, the Lands Department (LandsD) has implemented a number of measures to streamline and improve the Application List System, put in place streamlined procedures for handling change of use for premises on ground level of industrial buildings, streamline the land premium assessment process and enhance its transparency. The streamlined processes are promulgated through the issue of practice notes.

A task force is formed under the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau to oversee and coordinate the granting of approval by PlanD, LandsD and BD.

Regarding the industry, the Business Facilitation Advisory Committee (BFAC) appointed by the Financial Secretary advises the Government on land leases and planning process. The Pre-construction Task Force under the BFAC has earlier examined and accepted the Government's proposal of simplifying the land lease conditions and improving revision mechanism. Among the 46 special conditions in residential land lease, we have simplified 20 special conditions.

The amendments proposed by Dr Hon Yeung Sum and Hon Albert Ho Chun-yan relate to the composition and operation of the TPB. The TPB is a statutory body established under the Town Planning Ordinance. It is widely represented with mainly non-official members including individuals from different sectors like the commercial sector, industrial sector, legal sector, construction sector and engineering sector, etc. At present, there are 32 non-official members with one of them appointed Vice Chairman. There are only 6 official members.

For the chairmanship of the TPB, it is currently not laid down in the law whether the chairman should be official or non-official member. The responsibility of the TPB is to prepare statutory plans and consider planning applications. The planning and use of land in the whole territory hinge on its decisions. Given the unique job nature of the TPB, the post of Chairman used to be taken up by the Secretary of the Bureau concerned and subsequently by the Permanent Secretary of the Bureau concerned following implementation of the Accountability System. As most of the work of the TPB involves consideration of private development projects, the Chairman must not have any personal conflict of interests but possess relevant experience and should be able to participate in the planning work continuously. Therefore, we are of the view that it is most suitable for the Permanent Secretary (Planning and Lands) to chair the TPB.

Dr Hon Yeung Sum also suggested that an independent secretariat for the TPB should be set up. At present, the PlanD provides secretarial and professional / technical support services for the TPB. It should be noted that the work of the PlanD is under public scrutiny. For statutory plans and planning applications, decisions are ultimately made by the TPB. We are of the view that the existing arrangement does not undermine the autonomy of the TPB. The setting up of an independent secretariat will not only incur additional resources, but issues of professional / technical support have also to be addressed. Given that applications handled by the TPB involve a lot of technical issues, adequate professional / technical support is a must. Such work being handled by the PlanD, which is familiar with the Town Planning Ordinance and the relevant procedures, will avoid overlapping of resources and duplication of work. Since the amendment proposed by Dr Hon Yeung Sum runs counter to the intention of enhancing efficiency, I cannot support it.

Currently, in discharging its functions, the TPB fully consults and listens to the public in accordance with the requirements of the law. After the Town Planning (Amendment) Ordinance took effect, no matter it is plan making or planning application approval, the planning process is more open. For example, plans will be published for the public to make comments, both supportive and adverse; planning applications will be published for public inspection and comment; and the public can propose amendments to plans for consideration of the TPB. Moreover, TPB meeting, except the deliberation parts and special circumstances, is open to public. Minutes of meeting (including the deliberation parts) will all be uploaded to the TPB website for public information. Such measures can significantly enhance the transparency of the planning system. Under the mechanism of public scrutiny, it is believed that we can balance the interests of all parties with the aspirations of the public. In fact, we have achieved what Hon Albert Ho's viewpoint contains.

We need to carefully balance all the elements such as efficiency, transparency, public accountability. I would like to emphasize that the TPB has taken a big step forward in enhancing transparency and accountability after the Amendment Ordinance took effect.

Lastly, I would like to respond to the proposal raised by Hon Patrick Lau in relation to the setting up of a high-level ad hoc committee to coordinate the various efforts in facilitating urban development. From the examples I cited earlier, on the issue of "facilitating urban development", the Government has a time-proven mechanism for policy making and coordination, in addition to having set up a number of high-level committees tasked to handle important issues involving urban development. Moreover, studies closely related to urban development have been or are being conducted. First and foremost, the Executive Council (Exco) is responsible for formulating supreme policy directives for the coordination of various policy areas. Then, the Commission on Strategic Development, which draws talents extensively, is an important think-tank of the Exco and tenders advice to the Government. On the other hand, the TPB discharges functions laid down in the Town Planning Ordinance. Other representative high-level ad hoc committees include Council for Sustainable Development, Business Facilitation Advisory Committee, etc. We can achieve effective administration in relation to urban development through the existing mechanism and different committees. Nevertheless, we will continue to improve the existing mechanism to make it better and better.

Experiences in developments show that the town planning system in Hong Kong has already put in place the necessary mechanisms to ensure urban development and renewal move ahead with time to meet social needs. Alongside the pursuit of rapid urban development, the Government must take into account other aspirations of the public including their participation in the planning process and strike a balance between them. We believe that good town planning helps in creating a good place in which the public live and work, which can boost economic development in turn.

Thank you, Madam President.

Ends/Wednesday, June 28, 2006