Opening remarks by SDEV at the press conference on matters concerning the West Wing of the former Central Government Offices and Ho Tung Gardens (with video)

Following is the English translation of the speech by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, at the press conference on matters concerning the West Wing of the former Central Government Offices and Ho Tung Gardens today (December 4):

Good afternoon friends from the media and everyone.

Let me first speak about Ho Tung Gardens. In October 2011, after consulting the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB), the Antiquities Authority announced her plan to declare Ho Tung Gardens as a monument in accordance with the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance (the Ordinance), and informed the owner of her intention. The owner expressed objection then and submitted a petition to the Chief Executive according to the Ordinance.

Upon considering the objection raised by the owner, the Chief Executive in Council directed the Antiquities Authority that the declaration of Ho Tung Gardens as a monument shall not be made. According to section 4(6) of the Ordinance, the direction of the Chief Executive in Council shall be final.

As Ho Tung Gardens will not be declared as a monument, it will not be subjected to protection under the Ordinance. In other words, the owner may proceed with the building and demolition plans approved by the Buildings Department earlier to redevelop Ho Tung Gardens. The then Secretary for Development had met with the owner and her representatives for numerous times to discuss preservation proposals and appropriate economic incentives, but an agreement could not be reached. Nevertheless, I still hope to continue the discussion with the owner, and I hope that the owner would consider preserving parts of the Ho Tung Gardens while redeveloping the site.

It is our policy objective to strike a proper balance between respect for private property rights and heritage conservation. We understand that not everyone would agree with spending billions of dollars of public money to preserve historic buildings. That is why we have been providing economic incentives through land exchange, transfer of or increase in plot ratio, etc. in exchange for the owners’s agreement to hand over or to preserve the historic buildings under their ownership. In the past few years, we have successfully preserved a number of historic buildings, such as preserving King Yin Lei through non-in-situ land exchange and preserving the front portion of the shophouse at 179 Prince Edward Road West through minor relaxation of plot ratio. However, not all cases (including the wish of the owners) are the same; every case is different and therefore, similar economic incentives may not be able to work in all cases.

The case of Ho Tung Gardens shows that we need to review our present policy on the preservation of privately-owned historic buildings. Though the Government had put forward to the owner a number of preservation–cum-development proposals and offered land exchange, these were all rejected by the owner. Under such circumstances, to declare the historic building concerned as a monument will inevitably lead to litigation and claim for compensation, which will involve a huge amount of public money. Besides, how should we view our respect for private property rights? Is there a need to change our current policy, if so, how should it be changed so that we can strike a better balance between respect for private property rights and heritage conservation? Would the Hong Kong society not be willing to spend a large amount of public money in exchange for the preservation of preserve privately-owned historic buildings under all circumstances? Will members of the public support spending public money to preserve privately-owned historic buildings under certain circumstances? For example, by incorporating conditions like the historic buildings should reach a certain level of historic value, or the compensation should not exceed a certain amount, or that the historic building should be opened to public and how it should be opened to the public? Furthermore, should we set a more specific mechanism and standard for providing economic incentives to owners? The Development Bureau will commence reviewing its policy on the preservation of privately-owned historic buildings, so as to better meet the public’s expectations on the preservation of privately-owned historic buildings when implementing the heritage conservation policy in future.

As for Ho Tung Gardens, I wish to take this opportunity to mention that, the then Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrie Lam, Chairman of the AAB, Mr Bernard Chan, and myself were not present at the meeting(s) when the Executive Council discussed the petition submitted by the owner of Ho Tung Gardens, as we had been involved in the procedures related to the intended declaration of Ho Tung Gardens as a monument.

I would like to talk about the redevelopment of the West Wing of the former Central Government Offices (CGO). Taking into account the recommendations of the historic and architectural appraisal of the former CGO conducted in 2009, the Government decided to preserve the Main and East Wings of CGO for use by the Department of Justice (DoJ) as new headquarters and redevelop the West Wing. The redevelopment of the West Wing aimed at increasing the supply of Grade A offices in Central so as to meet the strong demands of high-quality office space in central business districts (CBD).  It is also an opportunity to build a public green space in Central, linking the greenery from the Government House to Battery Path.

We conducted a public consultation exercise on the West Wing redevelopment plan at end 2010, and announced a revised plan in June after considering the views received during the consultation.  Notwithstanding the revisions made, we noticed that there are still strong diverging views on the revised redevelopment plan.

Meanwhile, the Main and East Wings allocated to DoJ as its new headquarters could not meet its total office space requirements.  Moreover, some law-related non-government organisations (NGOs) also require office space to operate. The Government believes that if the West Wing of the former CGO could be allocated to DoJ and law-related NGOs for office use, this would allow all DoJ’s divisions to be housed at the former CGO, thereby provides convenience to DoJ and enhances its operational efficiency.

The use of the former CGO for DoJ’s offices would allow DoJ to release its existing offices in government-owned properties and private commercial premises in the vicinity of Admiralty. Those government-owned office spaces may be allocated to other government agencies, while the rented office accommodation may be released back to the commercial property market, thereby indirectly easing the demands for offices in CBD as well as freeing up government-own properties for potential redevelopment (for example the three government office towers in Wan Chai North).

As such, we decided to adopt a re-use plan for the West Wing, under which the main body of the building block will be preserved and renewed for use by DoJ to accommodate its offices that cannot be relocated to the Main and East Wings, as well as for use by law-related NGOs.

The Government will carry out these works as soon as possible.