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Hong Kong officials would be wise to take the government’s reputation more seriously.

Tram brouhaha should never have been a story, but for the trust gap.

Sit Kwok-keung (薛國強) must be pleased with himself. Since news broke that the retired Senior Town Planner’s Intellects Consultancy Limited, had submitted an application with the Town Planning Board (TPB) to remove a section of Hong Kong’s iconic tram from the Central business district, the former civil servant has received no shortage of media attention.

Never mind that the Intellects application was never meant to be serious. Evidence for this, while circumstantial, is plentiful. Based on his work experience, Sit would know that a government-appointed body such as the TPB does not make decisions in a vacuum. An application involving the use of a large piece of government land and an iconic public transport mode must be aligned with prevailing policy priorities. A serious applicant would have spent months of time, and a considerable sum on research, to convince official and community stakeholders that the change was reasonable. Sit has never mentioned such legwork, and we have yet to see any serious analysis designed to convince critics that sacrificing the tram is advisable.

If that were not enough to put naysayers’ minds at ease, the fact that Intellects has repeatedly submitted an application to change the zoning of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison headquarters in Central from military to commercial use should have. That application humorously claims that the “planning merits override the interest of the land owner”, China’s State Council.

A media-hungry former Town Planner would also recognize that anyone can submit an application to amend a zoning plan under the Town Planning Ordinance. Moreover, every submission is entitled to a three-week public consultation period. That most of the public is ignorant of these formalities indicates an ideal opportunity to endow a crackpot proposal with a whiff of seriousness at the expense of the government’s reputation.

Brewing Storm (In a Teacup)

Perhaps sensing controversy brewing, on 19 August, the Hong Kong Government distributed a terse news release that denies its participation in the Intellects application and declares no change in the role of trams under existing transport policy. This strongly suggests Intellects’ application will be declined.

Many concerned Hongkongers either did not get this message or chose to overlook it. In fact, with a week of media coverage behind the story, activists were only starting to release countermeasures.

On 20 August, the urban planning NGO Designing Hong Kong circulated a tram-friendly petition via its website and social media. One day later pan-democrat legislators Claudia Mo Man-ching and Gary Fan Kwok-wai hit the streets to gather signatures for their own petition. And, on 24 August, the newly launched “Save the Tram Alliance”, announced it would submit a rival application to turn tram-occupied streets into a tram and pedestrian zone.

As for Sit, his little firm continues to receive what every fledgling consultancy dreams of – weeks of serious attention and a patina of respectability. Never mind that Intellects is barely three years old, and its website is still under construction. Now all of Hong Kong knows that Sit and his firm exist. We can thank the media, and Hongkongers’ anxieties for that.

Lessons for Leaders

Why would such a proposal become a hot story in the first place? The answer yields lessons for Hong Kong planning officials.

First, we might speculate that the media sensed a lack of confidence in official decision-making among some community stakeholders. Indeed, the TPB’s record provides some suggestive evidence.

As if on cue, on 21 August, the TPB decided on another controversial application. That application, brought by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and New World Development, proposed extending the tourist-dense Walk of Stars along the entire Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade to Hung Hom. Only 20 out of 348 public submissions supported that plan. Critics questioned the black box decision to automatically grant the project to New World as well as the removal of large stretches of waterfront space from public access for up to three years. At the least, such points indicate the need for wider discussion among stakeholders.

That public outcry paled in comparison to that which accompanied an early-2014 government application to rezone a 0.3-hectare area along the Central waterfront to military use on behalf of the PLA. Only 20 of 19,000 public comments supported that ruling.

In fact, controversial planning decisions are all-too-common in Hong Kong. In 2015 alone, activists have faced the potential rezoning of green belt land next to a historic mansion on the Peak, approval of the demolition of the Stanley Boathouse, and a ruling against preservation of the Tung Tak Pawn Shop in Wan Chai. In many cases, officials either side with a private owner who wishes to dispose of a property with assessed historic value for financial gain or overrule public concerns in favor of a high-profile government project. This is apart from the many older government decisions that led to the destruction of the old Star Ferry Pier, Queen’s Pier, Lei Tung Street, Ho Tung Gardens and other sites.

In this light, the outsized opposition engendered by the poorly conceived Intellects proposal underlines a chronic trust deficit that threatens to make defusing future crises over planning decisions even more difficult for those in power. It is up to the government to manage its reputation more wisely. May the authorities be warned!