Speech by SDEV at opening ceremony of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Heritage Conservation Conference 2015 (English only) (with photo)

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, at the opening ceremony of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Heritage Conservation Conference 2015 today (January 9):

Chairman of RICS Hong Kong Board, Mr Andrew Lee; Chairman of conference organising committee, Mr Daniel Ho; Vice President/Chairman of RICS Asia World Regional Board, Mr Chris Brooke; distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. I would first like to thank the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) for inviting me and my colleagues to join today's conference on "Towards a Sustainable Model for Adaptive Re-use of Heritage Buildings". Since 2011, the Development Bureau has held annual conferences on heritage conservation. It is encouraging to see that the RICS, as an industry player, has now taken the lead in this discussion. For this, my colleagues have asked me to relay their special thanks to the RICS for relieving them from organising such a conference themselves this year! Joking aside, I am pleased to see so many participants today, particularly those from overseas. You make the conference a truly international platform for knowledge sharing on our chosen subject. I hope we can all take this occasion to consider and explore solutions for the adaptive re-use of heritage buildings, not only in Hong Kong but also in your home countries.

Hong Kong is a bustling international city. With over a century of interflow between Chinese and Western cultures, this city has developed an array of unique monuments and historic buildings. These buildings have not only borne witness to our history and development, but also epitomise our unique characteristics and social landscape. Through the preservation and appreciation of our built heritage, we can better connect with our past and gain a clearer sense of our identity.

Admittedly, Hong Kong is a late starter in the field of built heritage conservation. However, noting an increasing expectation within the community for such conservation after the turn of the century, the Government initiated a policy review in 2004. As a result, a new conservation framework for built heritage, along with a package of initiatives, was introduced in 2007. Among other things, this policy strives to "... protect, conserve and revitalise, as appropriate, historical and heritage sites and buildings through relevant and sustainable approaches for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. In implementing this policy, due regard should be given to development needs in the public interest, respect for private property rights, budgetary considerations, cross-sector collaboration and active engagement of stakeholders and the general public".

Specifically, our heritage conservation initiatives cover five main areas:

(1) to conduct heritage impact assessment for public works projects;
(2) to implement the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme (which I will elaborate on further in a moment);
(3) to facilitate the preservation of privately-owned historic buildings, such as making use of land exchange and the transfer of development rights;
(4) to provide financial incentives for the maintenance of historic buildings; and
(5) to set up the Commissioner for Heritage's Office to co-ordinate various initiatives.

The Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme

In 2008, we launched the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme (or in short, the Revitalisation Scheme). It is now the most prominent and well known policy initiative in our built heritage conservation portfolio. In fact, it is through this scheme that we have gained a better grasp of the sustainable adaptive re-use model. The Revitalisation Scheme aims to conserve and revitalise vacant historic buildings owned by the Government that have limited commercial viability. Non-profit organisations (NPOs) are selected to put these historic buildings into good and innovative use in the form of social enterprises.

Under the Revitalisation Scheme, we will invite NPOs to submit applications, which will then be assessed by an advisory committee comprising government officials and non-government experts and lay members of the public. In recognition of the fact that these are NPOs and social enterprises, the Government provides successful applicants with sufficient financial resources to enable these projects to take off. These include one-off grants to cover the capital costs of major works and equipment to enable the building to become fit for the proposed use, nominal rental for the use of the buildings, and operating grants at a ceiling of $5 million (or about US$645,000) per project to meet the operating deficits of the social enterprise for a maximum period of the first two years of operation.

Among the 16 revitalised historic buildings under the Scheme so far, we have a former law court turned into a prestigious higher educational institution, namely the Savannah College of Art and Design Hong Kong, and a former public housing estate block, namely Mei Ho House, becoming a youth hostel. Another successful example is a boutique heritage hotel in Tai O which used to be a police station. I notice that all these sites have been included in the conference's visit programme. I do encourage you to take a look for yourself to assess the success or otherwise of the Revitalisation Scheme. The conference has also selected another site which is worthy of a visit, namely the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ) on Hollywood Road. These former police quarters have been reincarnated as homes for creative industries. The quarters are in fact part of a project which aims to reinvigorate some of the historic buildings in Central District, the heart of this city. The project, which is called "Conserving Central", includes the PMQ and seven other buildings including the Central Police Station, the former Central Government Offices complex and the former French Mission Building. We hope that by conserving these old buildings which form our invaluable heritage, future generations will better understand our past and be proud of its legacy.

When we analyse the factors contributing to their success, it is apparent that all these projects have turned idle historic buildings into sustainable businesses, which not only appeal to the public but also have the support of the local community. In brief, there are three key success factors. First, there must be a viable business case so that the proposed social enterprises can be self-sustaining, with profits reinvested for the pursuit of the social objectives that they pursue. Second, the projects should be able to attract the general public's interest in visiting them. The PMQ, for example, has brilliantly turned these functional and pragmatic post-Second World War buildings into a hub accommodating some 100 design and creative enterprises. It has become a public icon and a popular destination for local and overseas visitors. The visitor flow further enhances its businesses and the business of the neighbouring community. Third, the project should be supported by the local community. For example, the heritage hotel in Tai O is greatly loved by the local community. It offers employment opportunities for local residents and attracts many visitors to the area. The hotel has also established a good rapport with Tai O village through collaborations with local shops and residents for events such as the annual dragon boat races. The hotel's café is also deliberately priced at a very affordable level so that local villagers and visitors can all enjoy it. I have heard that many young people who previously left Tai O for work in the city have returned to the village, because they can find gainful work there due to the booming tourism and an improved local economy. Following its successful revitalisation and restoration, I am glad to say that the Tai O Heritage Hotel received an Award of Merit at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2013.

Success comes with some lessons learnt too. For example, during the design and works stages, NPOs need assistance in tackling the tender and procurement requirements set by the Government, in applying for various licenses from different bodies and government departments, and in meeting the statutory building and fire safety requirements. At the same time, they have to maintain the building's original distinctive features, and are required to complete the project on budget and within a specific timeframe. These are daunting tasks as they fall outside the expertise of many NPOs. When selecting operators for revitalisation projects, we have to consider their management capability to assess the viability of the project concerned. In addition, we also need to encourage operators to integrate with the local community by developing local networks and thereby enhancing social cohesion. I am delighted to see that some seasoned and successful business leaders and professionals have participated in these projects to support the NPOs and to help steer them to the right path. I wish to take this opportunity to appeal to all of you - professionals, experts and partners - to contribute your skills to the NPOs as far as possible. Your involvement will surely benefit the heritage and legacy of Hong Kong.

Protection of privately-owned historic buildings

Aside from government buildings, the heritage conservation of privately-owned historic buildings has been an interesting but also a challenging area. It has been our objective to strike a proper balance between heritage conservation and respect for private property rights. We like to take the initiative and offer different economic incentives, including land swaps and transfer or increase of plot ratio, in exchange for the consent of private owners to surrender or conserve historic buildings in their ownership. A notable example is King Yin Lei, a Chinese Renaissance-style building from the pre-war period.

King Yin Lei is a landmark case in Hong Kong's heritage conservation. It is not only one of the very few remaining buildings of its style and period, but also the first case, since the promulgation of the new heritage conservation policy in 2007, in which a privately owned historic building was preserved through a land exchange. King Yin Lei was originally a privately owned building, but damage to its roof tiles, stone features and window frames drew wide public attention in 2007. To spare it from further damage, the Government triggered the relevant statutory provisions and took decisive action by declaring the building a proposed monument, thus rendering it temporary legal protection under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. The Government subsequently reached an agreement with the owner, whereby an adjacent site of similar size to King Yin Lei was granted to the owner in return for the ownership of King Yin Lei. Some queried whether this was an effective use of public resources; some said the Government acted too slowly, while others applauded our compensation arrangement, which fully respected private property rights and achieved the preservation of the historic building.

Economic incentives do not always work, however. Not long ago, we lost Ho Tung Gardens, which was the only remaining residence directly related to a prominent community leader in Hong Kong from the early colonial days. It was designated as a Grade 1 historic building. We had intensive discussions with the owner on various conservation options such as land exchange. Unfortunately however, all our proposals were rejected by the owner.

Review of policy on the conservation of built heritage

It is clear that there are different views in the community on built heritage conservation. One thing is clear, however - the public's awareness about and desire for heritage conservation has grown rapidly. Though we have gained some experience in recent years, the case of Ho Tung Gardens clearly revealed some of the challenges for heritage conservation. Consequently, we decided it was time to review our policy on the conservation of built heritage, so we invited the Antiquities Advisory Board, which is the key statutory advisory body to the Government on built heritage conservation, to help us conduct a policy review last year. The review aimed to tackle questions such as how to enhance the protection of historic buildings while giving due regard to private property rights and development needs, and how to share the cost of conservation. The review also explored issues such as whether a heritage fund should be set up and whether statutory protection should be extended to all graded buildings in Hong Kong. I imagine you will cover some of these areas during this conference.

According to the RICS, today's conference aims to review the progress which Hong Kong has made in preserving heritage buildings. The conference will also provide a platform for regulators, businesses, operators, end users and professionals to discuss challenges, brainstorm potential solutions and, most important for me, offer recommendations to the Government. I very much look forward to receiving your advice and views.

Finally, I would once more like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and to all of you here for your concern about heritage conservation. I wish you all a healthy, happy and prosperous 2015. Thank you.

Ends/Friday, January 9, 2015
Issued at HKT 12:14


Speech by SDEV at opening ceremony of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Heritage Conservation Conference 2015 Photo 1