Public opinion polls are a poor way to run government policy. Polls are especially ill suited for policies about land use and development. If every separate development is subject to a vote, it undermines property rights and the ability to develop a diverse and vibrant city that caters to many tastes. As bad as opinion polls, are discretionary bureaucratic decisions.
What we need are simple common rules that apply to all land use and government property disposals. Those rules should be subject to a popular mandate, not each and every development.
Yet in the controversy about the “Government Hill” site and the West Wing offices, opponents want to elevate their own preferences to a special status, even if the cost to the public purse is high. Arguably the cost to the integrity of our land use system is even higher.
It is argued that the founding site of the colonial government in 1842 deserves special status, even though the site currently has little resemblance to its original form. Indeed, plans to demolish the west wing buildings and replace it with an office tower actually re-open part of the original hill. This area is currently no public park being defiled. It has for many years been a secured government zone of limited access. Offices, shops, restaurants and open space can restore the site to the people of Hong Kong.
Some argue that Central needs neither new office space nor new shopping. The argument is false. Shop rents are sky rocketing, forcing many smaller retailers out of central and reducing the utility of the district for those who work there. Office rents are on a similar path. The only answer is to increase the supply of both when there are opportunities to do so. Commerce is at the heart of Central District and Hong Kong – the desire of some to constrain it is misguided.More importantly, development decisions should not be at the whim of officials who can be pressured by those who disagree with them. Hong Kong’s governance has had more integrity because officials have had limited discretion and the boundaries of their actions well defined by the rule of law. Now we have had a process for the Government Hill site where not only the use of the site, but also the design of the buildings is to be determined by official discretion. The government has gone so far as to say that if it likes a specific design, it can make concessions on the land premium paid.
This creates a hazardous situation where the winning bid is determined by subjective criteria, rather than a simple rule like the highest bid at an auction wins. With subjective criteria, taste can confer potentially lucrative benefits on the winner. It puts a premium not on commercial judgements, but on guessing the preferences of officials. Based on preferences for design, there can be a large cost to the treasury.It is far better to set out and enforce simple rules for all buildings in the city. If public land becomes available, an auction selling to the highest bidder delivers a fair process. Good design usually works commercially. It attracts more tenants, foot traffic and attention. It helps developers win future business. In a prime site, the potential rewards from designs that people like are even greater.
Then sometimes, we need bold design that is not to everyone’s liking. What is considered good architecture now, often outraged opinion at the time that it was built. Committees rarely design as well as creative architects with a vision. Only secure property rights can allow owners and architects to work together to create great buildings. A city with every building vetted by design officials would become less human and less interesting.Perhaps we are all missing the point about the heritage value of this dull, utilitarian 1959 office block. It represents a time when government was more restrained. When officials accepted functional accommodation and a government with limited purposes did not need ever increasing office space. A reasonable trade off would be to preserve the building, return government to its former size and location, and then sell the new government offices to the highest bidder.
Bill Stacey is in his 10th year as a resident of Hong Kong and is Chairman of the Lion Rock Institute.We are now on Facebookhttp://www.facebook.com/pages/