Speech by Secretary for Development at Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors Annual Conference

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrie Lam, at the Annual Conference of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors today (October 13):

Dear President Chan, distinguished speakers coming from Australia, UK and the World Bank, guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me give you first of all our warm welcome to this Annual Conference of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors (HKIS). It gives me great pleasure to join you here at the opening of this year’s Annual Conference. I wish to congratulate the Organizing Committee for choosing Heritage as the theme of this year’s Conference. As Raymond has said this is both timely and relevant given the increasing public interest on heritage matters and more importantly the package of heritage conservation initiatives just announced by the Chief Executive three days ago in his annual Policy Address. As the officer responsible for heritage conservation, of course, I greatly welcome this opportunity to share with you the HKSAR Government’s vision and commitment to this important area of work which contributes to the Chief Executive’s progressive view on development.

But before that, let me express my appreciation to the HKIS and the surveyors profession for the support you have pledged in adopting this particular theme “Surveyors in Heritage – Preserving and Adding Value”. While Raymond has just claimed some credit for the foresight of the HKIS and himself, I would like to likewise claim some credit for my Chief Executive. I believe this particular theme was chosen and prompted by the Chief Executive when he appeared at the annual dinner of the HKIS held in November last year. On that occasion, the Chief Executive articulated that the surveying profession enjoyed a long history in Hong Kong beginning with the arrival of the first Government Surveyor General, Mr Alexander Thomas Gordon in 1843 and that eight years later, building work began on Government House, based on plans drawn up by the second Government Surveyor General, Mr Charles St. George Clevely. As we all know, Government House today is a declared monument under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, and still used very frequently both as the residence and office of the Chief Executive. So, surveyors do have a long history of association with, and contribution to, our local heritage.

Over the past 160 years, Hong Kong has successfully and miraculously transformed itself from a remote fishing village into a global city. This would not have been possible without extensive changes to our cityscape, with leveling of mountains, reclaiming of the harbour, urban regeneration, and old buildings giving way to high rise buildings. But as Hong Kong becomes a civilized and developed society, people are naturally aspiring for quality living in terms of clean air, clean water; richness in life through participation in arts and culture, links to society’s past and a sense of identity through preservation of heritage. In my view, the Chief Executive’s “Progressive View of Development” which he has advocated in his Election Manifesto earlier this year is a strong and positive response to such public aspirations.

Under the Chief Executive’s progressive view of development, we need to strike a balance amongst environmental protection, sustainable development and heritage conservation. As a first step, the Development Bureau which I headed was created from 1 July 2007 to help achieve that very needed balance by overseeing on the one hand the planning, land and works portfolio as well as on the other hand heritage conservation work. I am indeed honoured and privileged to take up the position as Hong Kong’s first Secretary for Development. From Queen’s Pier to King Yin Lei, my first three months in the job have already given me a good glimpse of the challenges to follow in the next few years and indeed I earned myself a new title of Secretary for Heritage, rather than the Secretary for Development. This balancing act is indeed a very tall order.

To rise to this challenge and to demonstrate the HKSAR Government’s commitment to heritage conservation, the Chief Executive has outlined a comprehensive and I would regard as exciting package of measures in his Policy Address. This package is action-oriented, innovation-driven and partnership-based. Let me address these features by taking you through some of the proposed initiatives.

Local heritage work started 30 years ago with the enactment of the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. In the same year the Antiquities and Monuments Office was set up to advise the Government on heritage matters. And you will agree with me that thirty years ago, the idea of preserving the city’s historic past was probably an idea only in the minds of a handful of academics. The public at large was generally not interested in the subject.

Thirty years have gone by and now we have 82 declared monuments, of which 64 are buildings like the Government House that I have mentioned and 18 are rock carvings, forts and archaeological sites and on top of that we have some 496 historic buildings graded by the Antiquities Advisory Board on an administrative basis. But the common complaint hitherto was we did not have a clear heritage conservation policy and incidents of heritage preservation tended to be dealt with in an episodic ad-hoc manner, sometimes taking on a confrontational approach. Two rounds of consultation on our heritage policy were conducted by the Home Affairs Bureau before the re-structuring in this new term of government. The time has come for us to put to rest any skepticism about our commitment to do better to preserve our local heritage and this latest package announced by the Chief Executive is therefore characterized by an action agenda which we will roll out as soon as possible, in other words, no more talk but action. Our efforts are also underpinned by a clear policy statement on heritage conservation which is “To protect, conserve and revitalize as appropriate historical and heritage sites and buildings through relevant and sustainable approaches for the benefit and enjoyment of the present and future generations. Of course, in implementing this policy, due regard has to be given to development needs in the public interest, respect for private property rights, budgetary considerations, cross-sector collaboration and active engagement of stakeholders as well as the general public.”

To achieve this important policy objective, we will implement five major initiatives in the coming years covering both the public and private domains. Each of these calls for an innovative approach.

First, in the public domain, we will require heritage impact assessments (HIA) to be conducted for all public works projects at the project inception stage. This new requirement is imposed with the aim to avoid new projects interfering with historic sites or buildings, or where interference is unavoidable, to mitigate the impact. Through this process, we could also engage the public at an early stage and address their concerns on heritage conservation in the first instance. This internal mechanism, apart from demonstrating Government’s commitment to enhance heritage conservation, will also ensure the best balance be struck between development and conservation. This heritage impact assessment requirement will no doubt generate additional workload and may prolong the project planning process in the short run but I firmly believe that such a requirement will ultimately help to ensure capital works projects could be delivered smoothly and to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned.

Innovation is particularly prominent in our second initiative within the Government domain which is to promote adaptive re-use of government-owned historic buildings. In line with the theme of this Conference, preservation is about adding value – there is little point in preserving historic buildings for the sake of preservation. We should give these local heritage a new lease of life and allow public accessibility for the enjoyment of both local and overseas visitors. Instead of going into details about the proposed “Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership”, I would invite you all to pick up a leaflet which I hope my colleague have brought some leaflets and placed them at the reception and join subsequent open forum and briefing sessions for professional institutes and Non-Government Organisations to engage them in finalising the Scheme for implementation. The HKIS would certainly receive an invitation from me shortly to come to one of these briefings especially for professional institutes on the revitalization scheme. I should just add that two days ago together with the Hong Kong Jockey Club we have already announced a major revitalizing scheme at the Central Police Station Compound. I hope you would have time to look at this fabulous project and be able to give the project your support.

Our third initiative targets historic buildings in private ownership. We will put in place appropriate incentive schemes to promote and facilitate the preservation of these buildings, thereby striking the practical balance between heritage preservation and the respect for private development rights. We will explore incentive measures including those advocated by the public and the professionals including HKIS, such as land exchange and transfer of development rights to facilitate conservation of privately-owned historic buildings. I have to confess that this is an area that is very complicated and that is why we need support from the professionals including surveyors and with no doubt we need your significant contribution. I am optimistic that this initiative will create a win-win situation. For privately-owned historic buildings not under threat of redevelopment, we will also introduce measures to promote proper maintenance by making available financial assistance now available only to declared monuments, of course provided some conditions are fulfilled such as allowing the public to go into the historic building to appreciate and to enjoy the building.

As the Chief Executive has pledged, the public would be better and more deeply engaged in the decision making process on public policies. This applies equally if not more prominently to heritage conservation. Our fourth initiative is characterized by partnership. We will create more opportunities for engaging members of the public in heritage conservation. Specifically, we will enhance the transparency of the Antiquities Advisory Board and will engage the public in formulating the details of the various proposed administrative measures. We will invite the non-governmental organizations to participate in the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme. We will also conduct publicity to promote our new heritage policy and measures. As a first step of such public engagement, we have lined up public forum and briefings and meetings throughout this month to engage various groups. Indeed if you could excuse me that I have to leave after this opening session as I need to go to a radio phone-in programme to answer public queries on this very interesting subject.

In order to implement all these new measures, we need a focused and effective mechanism. Our fifth initiative is therefore to create an Office of the Commissioner for Heritage in the Development Bureau. The Commissioner will coordinate work on heritage conservation and provide a focal point for local and overseas networking. So I am looking forward to visit Australia and London with my Commissioner in due course to study the oversea experience. In the longer run, we will examine the setting up of a heritage trust in Hong Kong to take over part of the heritage conservation work. I still believe that mobilizing the community through a non-government institution is the best way forward.

Ladies and gentlemen, heritage conservation requires the concerted efforts of all. As a representative professional institute, I look to the HKIS for advice and input to make our initiatives more practical and more effective because surveyors are generally pragmatic people. As individual surveyors, I urge you to assist Non-Government Organisations in putting forth innovative proposals to revitalize the stock of historic buildings. And of course, if you could do it probono that is even better. As a member of society, I hope you share our vision for a progressive view of development and help us in striking the needed balance.

I wish the Annual Conference of HKIS every success and all of you a nice weekend.

Ends/Saturday, October 13, 2007

Issued at HKT 14:11