Civic Exchange’s Feedback on 2014 Policy Address

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Civic Exchange’s feedback on 2014 Policy Address

HONG KONG: Wednesday, 15 January 2014 一 Civic Exchange would like to feed back on various initiatives proposed by the Chief Executive in the 2014 Policy Address, including Air Quality Management, Nature Conservation, Urban Liveability, People with Disability, and Women issues. Nevertheless, there are areas where Civic Exchange has identified as major reservations or missed opportunities.

1.    Air quality management

With the new Air Quality Objectives (AQOs) and the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), the government has sharpened the tools in managing and communicating air quality. This is without a doubt a step in the right direction, but Civic Exchange maintains that the Government should regularly review Hong Kong’s AQOs, in line with the latest air science and health effect research, as well as continuously monitor the effectiveness of the new AQHI in informing the public the state of air quality and the associated health risks. The new AQOs and AQHI are not going to improve air quality; the key to make a difference is for the government to implement effective actions that would deliver solid improvement.

It is therefore heartening to see government’s progress in implementing some of the air pollution reduction measures proposed in A Clean Air Plan for Hong Kong, like the diesel commercial vehicle replacement scheme, the incentive scheme to replace after-treatment devices on franchised buses, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) taxis and minibuses, and the tightening of emissions inspection of petrol and LPG vehicles. Similarly in the marine sector, Civic Exchange welcomes the government’s plans to legislate tighter fuel standards for local vessels soon and at-berth fuel switching for ocean-going vessels effective from January 2015.

Civic Exchange wants to lend our support to the government’s escalating regional effort in both air science research and air quality management. Hong Kong and Guangdong have developed over the years a solid partnership in regional air pollution co-prevention and co-control. With this platform, the Pearl River Delta region is leading the country in air science research, air quality monitoring, and air policy application. In light of the acute air pollution challenges faced by China, Hong Kong and Guangdong should take advantage of our regional experience and expertise, to not only improve air quality in this region and meeting our targets, but to also play a supporting role in China’s effort in tackling air pollution.

2.      Nature Conservation

Civic Exchange welcomes the renewed focus on ecologically important sites in private ownership. However, the Government should reconsider the mechanisms for conserving these countryside enclaves. In particular, significant problems exist in the application of public-private partnerships, both in terms of securing long-term perpetuity funds for conservation and the adverse impact of attracting visitors to sensitive sites that have limited carrying capacity loads. In contrast, management agreements have had some success, but long term conservation planning at these valuable sites is hinged on funding mechanisms for management agreement projects beyond the 3-year limits of the Environment and Conservation Fund.

Apart from these conservation mechanisms, the Government should consider other international best practice tools, such as Conservation trusts, which have operated quite successfully around the world, and is capable of channelling private funds to secure places of social and environmental value. Unlike the pilot PPP scheme, conservation trusts often do not require development on the site to attract funding, and so environmental damage is usually kept at a minimum.

Green Belts often act as buffers between developed and ecological areas, and also connect distant ecological areas together. This makes them very valuable for biodiversity conservation. Rezoning decisions on Green Belt sites should be screened for these ecological factors, and not only based on its potential for development.

It is encouraging that the ongoing formulation of the Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP) is on the Government’s policy agenda. The success of the BSAP depends on implementation and buy-in from other government bureaus, and their active involvement at this stage remains crucial. It was disappointing that the Policy Address did not outline future strategic intentions to facilitate the mainstreaming of biodiversity considerations across relevant Government bureaus. Civic Exchange recommends the formulation of a high-level commission, chaired by the Chief Executive, to facilitate this cross-bureau involvement.

3.    Urban liveability

Rezoning industrial buildings

Civic Exchange supports the government’s efforts to revitalize industrial areas. Hong Kong has about 17.1 million square metres of flatted factory space, much of which is underutilized. It is already located close to the built-up urban areas and could be converted into housing with a minimal environmental impact in terms of construction waste and ecological degradation. Civic Exchange therefore welcomes the administration’s plans to rezone industrial land near residential areas for residential use. However, in order to enable buildings to be adaptively reused for housing instead of simply demolished, the government needs to review restrictive and outdated building regulations which render it prohibitively expensive to convert industrial buildings to residential use. This should be part of a broader move towards performance-based, rather than prescriptive requirements for building safety, light and ventilation.

Land supply and development intensity

While Hong Kong’s need for more housing is important, it should not come at the expense of good quality urban planning. It is therefore disappointing that the government plans to increase development intensity areas outside the urban core by 20%. This would raise the density of New Towns and comprehensive development areas to plot ratios currently permitted in Kowloon Peninsula and north Hong Kong Island. In Civic Exchange’s opinion, this would result in the recreation of planning problems already found in Hong Kong’s densest districts, such as the urban heat island effect, the street canyon effect, traffic congestion, and poor quality streetscapes and public open spaces.  The SARS epidemic of 2003 resulted in a wake-up call in government about the public health risk posed by poorly ventilated urban areas, and it is unfortunate to see those lessons now being ignored.

It is especially alarming that the government has decided to increase the plot ratio of the Kai Tak development by 430,000 m2 of office space and 6,800 flats at such a late stage in its planning. The Kai Tak development was initially planned for a lower development intensity in order to foster a more intimate, calmer urban character, to preserve views of the the Kowloon ridgeline, and most importantly, to maintain ventilation corridors to Kowloon City and San Po Kong. Sacrificing these goals in the face of immediate housing market pressures shows a lack of long-term vision.

Urban renewal

Civic Exchange sees the Urban Renewal Authority’s new development-led model as a step in the right direction towards transparency and fairness. However, one major problem that was not addressed was the quality of the new developments that are built. Many of the URA’s past projects have resulted in blank-walled cookie-cutter buildings which detract from the neighbourhood’s character, fail to contribute to street life, and price out local residents and businesses. A significant proportion of the public open and pedestrian circulation spaces created were sterile, very small, or of limited accessibility. The URA’s self-financing model limits the scope for sensitive urban design and should be revisited.

Pedestrian environment

Civic Exchange supports the government’s plans to improve the pedestrian environment in Hong Kong, including barrier-free access, pedestrian schemes in Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong, and the installation of elevators and escalators to enhance accessibility on steep slopes. Plans to expand cycling facilities in the New Territories are welcome and represent a long-overdue step towards recognizing cycling as a form of transportation and not simply as a recreational activity. These initiatives are worthwhile.

However, Civic Exchange would like to see the government place more emphasis on the quality of the built environment in overall transport planning. This requires a change in mindset. The walking environment is de-emphasized in the current paradigm, which focuses on vehicular networks conveying passengers to and from different land uses. However, walking is a crucial link as nearly everyone spends part of their day as a pedestrian. There needs to be more focus on the three-dimensional environment as experienced by pedestrians and cyclists. This will require greater coordination between different departments and bureaus including the Development Bureau, Planning Department, Transport Department and Highways Department. A better walking environment will bring about benefits such as lower transport emissions, improved public health, better quality of life for vulnerable groups, and a stronger sense of community.

4.    People with disabilities

Civic Exchange is delighted to see the government’s stated commitment to building a barrier-free environment for people with disabilities, especially promoting the employment of people with disabilities in the civil service and the private sector, as well as providing more support to schools which take students with special learning needs. Civic Exchange urges the government to further ensure equitable access of this group of students to higher education, where they are under-represented today. This could in turn facilitate their employment after graduation.

5.    Women

The government has realised the importance of facilitating women to return to the labour market and has pledged to improve childcare services in order to unleash more potential human capital. While encouraging more women to enter and/or re-enter the labour market is crucial, Civic Exchange encourages the government to also promote workplace diversity and to achieve equality of both sexes in the labour market as there are still very few women in senior positions in the private, public and academic sectors. There is an urgent need to implement more family-friendly policies and to enable the society to accommodate workplace diversity in order to benefit from the untapped pool of talents.

6.    Major Policy Omissions

However, Civic Exchange is disappointed that several major policy areas have been largely overlooked in the Policy Address.

Water resources management

It is disappointing that there is no plan to develop a long-term water resources management policy in Hong Kong that covers issues such as water supply sustainability, social responsibility and self-resilience. As 70 to 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s fresh water supply comes from Dongjiang, water supply to Hong Kong is becoming vulnerable due to the growing demand for water resources in the Pearl River Delta. Civic Exchange prompts the government to quickly respond to the challenge and devise our water resources management strategy in a broader, regional context.

Energy and climate change

Energy policy is another important area that requires immediate action and deliberation. The consultation on Hong Kong’s future fuel mix for power generation should be transparent and engaging. Civic Exchange reminds the government that information about different energy options or energy mix scenarios should be provided to facilitate public discussion, and views from different stakeholders must be solicited, so that the best policy decision would be made after consultation.

The issue of climate change is once again neglected in the Policy Address. Civic Exchange wants to re-iterate the importance for Hong Kong to set our carbon reduction target, and to devise our climate change strategy and action plan as soon as possible. Failure to do so in the immediate future will hamper the government’s progress in other policy areas, such as long-term energy policy which is very much connected with the issue of carbon intensity.

Public records management

There is no mention in the Policy Address that the government will enact an archive law to ensure public records are properly managed. Public records management has long been a neglected policy area. Relying on the current mandatory administrative guidelines (with no legal backing) is not enough to properly govern how public records are managed. The government, in the Policy Address, stressed the importance of upholding core values, such as clean governance and freedom. Enacting an archive law to ensure government agencies’ compliance with public records keeping (electronic records included), and to confer on the public a right to access to records is of crucial importance to good governance.

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