Secretary for Development's speech - "Surveyors in Olympics" - at the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors' Annual Conference

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrie Lam, at the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors’ Annual Conference today (July 26).

President Yu Kam-hung, distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to speak at the HKIS Annual Conference for a second consecutive year. Last year, I congratulated the HKIS for its foresight in picking the theme “Heritage” for the 2007 Annual Conference held on 13 October, which coincided with the emphasis this subject was given in the Chief Executive’s 2007 Policy Address delivered three days prior to the event on 10 October. A year down the road, I am pleased to report that the Development Bureau, tasked with the mission to press ahead with heritage conservation work in Hong Kong, has made good progress on various fronts. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the HKIS for speaking up in support of these initiatives, particularly on the proposed land exchange to preserve King Ying Lei which has now been formally declared a monument and our collaboration with the Hong Kong Jockey Club in preserving and revitalizing the Central Police Station with a decision to go ahead announced last week.

With less than two weeks to go, all eyes of the world will be on China, with Beijing hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics, the first ever of this international sports event on Chinese soil. Hong Kong is honoured to co-host the Equestrian Events, thus joining the league of Olympic Cities. I am sure in this Olympic-themed Annual Conference of the HKIS, surveyors who have played a role in development of the various Beijing Olympics facilities will have much to share with the audience. Their involvement has highlighted not only professional collaboration across the boundary but more importantly, the contribution of Hong Kong professionals to a major national event. The combined strength of professionalism and nationalism is no doubt the driving force behind tough work and challenges in the last few years.

When I was brought back from my London job in March 2006 as Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs, indeed one of the first assignments on my desk is preparatory work on the Olympics and Paralympics Equestrian Events. At that point, sports was a new portfolio that I have never done throughout my years in the public service and preparing for an Olympic event was simply daunting. In those 15 months as PSHA, through many trips to Beijing and meetings with BOCOG officials, I was greatly moved by the efforts put in by everyone and the national pride the Olympics has brought to the people. Back home, although Hong Kong was several years behind in putting together the venues, the task was made possible by unrivalled professionalism and competence of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the selfless support of our elite athletes who are temporarily relocated from the Hong Kong Sports Institute to the YMCA Wu Kwai Sha Youth Village to make way for renovation of their training institute into the main Equestrian venue and the dedication of the Hong Kong Equestrian Company and many other parties involved. I am confident that Hong Kong will put up one of the best Equestrian Events in the Olympic history. I have no doubt surveyors who have played a part in the Beijing developments are driven by the same passion and commitment.

Now, if you would bear with me for a while, I would like to turn to another subject that requires no less passion and commitment – that is, urban renewal. Last week, I formally launched the first ever comprehensive review of the Urban Renewal Strategy (URS). As surveyors have a key role to play in urban renewal, it would be unforgivable if I were to give this important initiative a miss at the HKIS’s Annual Conference. I sincerely invite you to take part in the public engagement process and to share with us your views.

The URS was published in November 2001 after extensive public consultations. In accordance with the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) Ordinance, the URS provides a broad policy framework to guide the work of URA.

Urban regeneration is an important development issue with social and economic dimensions and involving numerous stakeholders. Its aim is to tackle the problem of urban decay and improve quality of life for people living in dilapidated buildings as well as the local community at large. However, in practice, in both Hong Kong and elsewhere, urban renewal efforts are also confronted with problems and tensions as owners and tenants are relocated and buildings and districts redeveloped. For example, instead of perceiving redevelopment as an effective means to comprehensively revamp an old area by upgrading the street design and community amenities as well as to better utilise the scarce land resources, there are growing concerns that wholesale redevelopment will destroy the old Hong Kong relics, disrupt the social network of occupants and affect the local economic activities.

That said, as Hong Kong’s building stock ages, many challenges remain. And on a continuous basis, difficult acts and decisions are often called for in urban renewal in trying to balance –

Based on experience in the past seven years, we consider it timely to launch a major review of the URS in order to reflect changing circumstances and public aspirations. An updated URS following this major review will enable us to take forward future urban renewal work in Hong Kong.

We aim to conduct a root-and-branch review and will adopt an open mind in conducting the review. We will examine together with the community different aspects of urban regeneration. There will be no pre-determined agenda and we will invite relevant stakeholders and the public to assist in setting the agenda of the review.

To invite ideas and views, let me just outline what has been practised or achieved by URA under key aspects of the URS. More details of URA’s work could be found in the dedicated website we have created for the Review. And I would invite you to pick up a copy of the pamphlet for reference.

On redevelopment, over the past seven years, URA together with its strategic partner, the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS), have commenced ten new redevelopment projects under the URA Ordinance plus another 25 redevelopment projects inherited from the former Land Development Corporation (LDC). Upon completion, these 35 redevelopment projects would have improved the living conditions of some 18,000 people. With this pace of redevelopment, no doubt reflecting the statutory planning processes and the time needed to resolve difference and acquire/resume properties, it is necessary to examine whether the original target of commencing 225 redevelopment projects (including 25 ex-LDC projects) in 20 years as envisaged in the URS is realistic or desirable.

On rehabilitation, URA has proactively assisted eligible owners to renovate their buildings on a voluntary basis, through the provision of material and technology assistance, loans and special grants under its various rehabilitation assistance schemes. About 36,000 residential units in over 450 buildings have benefited from support of URA through these schemes. URA’s rehabilitation initiatives form an integral part of Government’s and HKHS’ effort to address the problem of aging building stock, a sizable problem given that about 15,000 private buildings are now aged over 30 years, and the number will increase to 22,000 buildings in ten years’ time. Given the scale of aged buildings, rehabilitation, in lieu of redevelopment, may be a more viable urban renewal approach. In this connection, I notice that the Hong Kong Housing Authority has also recently pronounced a policy to rehabilitate its old public housing estates such as the Wah Fu Estate. Rehabilitation is also more in line with the emphasis we now place on reduction in construction waste. Accordingly, the Government is committed to enhancing the statutory framework to prevent building decays with the recent legislative amendment to introduce a minor works regime and our coming efforts to mandate building and window inspection. The URS Review is therefore timely to address the potential impact of rehabilitation and the scope for synergy and enhanced cooperation amongst URA, HKHS and Government in the provision of various forms of assistance to owners in building rehabilitation.

Amongst the 4Rs adopted by URA, nothing is more dramatic than the emerged social awareness of heritage preservation and the related theme of revitalization in response to which we have formulated a more robust heritage policy and committed more public resources. URA has so far preserved about 25 buildings with historical significance in its projects. As part of the Government’s priority placed on heritage conservation, the Chief Executive has, in his 2007-08 Policy Address, requested URA to preserve more pre-war buildings. URA has announced a strategy to preserve 48 pre-war verandah type shophouses with an earmarked commitment of some $1.5 billion.

When putting the preserved buildings to adaptive re-use, it has not been easy to apply the modern building safety standard to historical building structures while striving to meet the conservation requirements. Adaptive re-use of the five preserved shophouses in the Johnston Road project for fine dining has successfully attracted a lot of interests in the community and has acted as a catalyst to revive business activities in the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, restoration costs involved have been very high and the difficulties in identifying a financially sustainable re-use generally acceptable to the community should not be under-estimated. There are rising public aspirations to preserve not only the buildings but also the surrounding neighbourhood and social fabrics.

The URS envisages URA action in target areas. To allow a more focused 4R approach (i.e. redevelopment, rehabilitation, revitalisation and preservation), URA has drawn up smaller action areas within the Target Areas. In practice, the urban renewal projects planned in the URS are site specific. Change in land use zoning in land parcels within and outside the target areas as well as transfer of development potential between sites for integrated planning are beyond what is currently envisaged in the URS.

For surveyors who have been involved in private sector urban redevelopment, the biggest hurdle naturally lies in acquisition. Although URA may seek the Secretary for Development’s support for land resumption, this power should not be easily invoked. URA’s acquisition policy is based on the decision of the Finance Committee of Legislative Council in March 2001 on compensation for Government land resumption, plus some additional incentives. Over the years, URA has devised a number of compensation arrangements, such as the “Expression of Interest in Purchasing Arrangement” whereby affected residential owners may register their interests and be given priority to purchase a new flat in the new development. In the 18 redevelopment projects with resumption completed or almost finished, 81% of all the interests were acquired by URA before resumption whereas 19% were resumed by the Government. Only 30 out of some 2,650 interests appealed to the Land Tribunal.

The acquisition and clearance process is getting more and more difficult and protracted. Operators and owners of some trades, especially those causing environmental nuisance but are tolerated in older districts, may have difficulties in finding new locations to restart their businesses. The current problems arising from the resistance of shop owners/operators and occupants of illegal structures were not foreseen when the compensation package was discussed in 2001.

While URA has adopted a people-centered approach to engage the public, public involvement has never been regarded as adequate. Intensive community development efforts have been made by URA throughout the implementation process from planning to acquisition stage. Different channels are employed, including the District Councils, URA’s District Advisory Committees, the Social Service Teams and direct engagement with the stakeholders. Inevitably, there will be occupants within and outside the project boundary objecting to redevelopment due to various reasons. Some shop operators and heritage conservation groups have staged strong protest against redeveloping certain project sites. How and where to draw a line to proceed with a commenced redevelopment project with less than 100% support remains debatable.

The HKSAR Government upholds “market leads, Government facilitates” as well as “big market, small government”. Adopting the same philosophy, Government-initiated and quasi-Government URA urban renewal projects are only justified where the market could not effectively performs. As surveyors are crucial delivery agents in private sector urban redevelopment, your views on the future of urban renewal in Hong Kong and the respective roles of government, URA and private sector are essential. As the URS Review public engagement is expected to last two years, perhaps next year’s HKIS Annual Conference could consider adopting the theme “surveyors in urban regeneration”. Assuming I would have the honour to be invited to speak for a third consecutive year, I look forward to that opportunity to provide an update on the Review.

I wish the Conference every success and look forward to enjoy watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Paralympics with you all.