More than 20,000 people, most of them students from Baptist University, recently filed their objection to the Town Planning Board over the Development Bureau’s plan to rezone the former Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute campus into a residential site. The Baptist University has been, for years, lobbying the government for the site to expand its campus. Baptist students believe the vacant site should become a teaching hospital for Chinese medicine, a hall of residence for the students and a creative centre.
The Town Planning Board will start hearing the public’s views over the rezoning proposal on March 10. The university, meanwhile, formed a 30-member delegation to state its case. It also urged the student to authorize the delegation to speak on their behalf.
On a separate front, the Board issued a five-page note to all those who registered to attend the hearing. The note titled “Guidance notes on the attending the meeting for consideration of the representations and comments in respect of the draft Kowloon Tong outline zoning plan No. S/K18/17”, detailed all the restrictions members of the public have to follow for speaking at the Board.
The restrictions include a rule that no one is allowed to speak for more than 10 minutes. The Board will also appoint a time-keeper to count time. The speaker must stop once the 10-minute limit is up. The public can authorize a representative to speak on their behalf. The representative can speak for more than one person. But the speaker is not allowed to pull together all the 10 minutes allotted to make a lengthy speech. Any speech longer than 10 minutes must chop into shorter sections. Because the note specifies “To avoid affecting the schedule sessions of other representer / commenters, the authorized representative may only use the time slots of the represented person at the dates (sessions) allotted to them respectively.”
The Board’s arrangement is a sheer violation to the public’s right to have their voice heard in the town planning process guaranteed in the Town Planning Ordinance. According to the Ordinance, the process is to “promote the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the community by making provision for the systematic preparation and approval of plans for erection therein and for the preparation and approval of plans for areas within which permission is required for development.” The government amended the Ordinance in 2004 to enhance transparency and pubic involvement of in town planning. Since then, those who file their opinion on planning issues “are entitled to attend and to be heard, either in person or by an authorized representative” at the Board’s meeting.
Now, people’s voices are entitled to be heard, but they are not entitled to speak more than 10 minutes. The Board’s latest invention is unreasonable, groundless and absurd. It curbs the public’s right to participate in shaping the city’s space. The 10-minute restriction was first imposed late last year to those who speak out against the government’s plan to rezone part of Central waterfront from public space to military space of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong. The restriction is not as detailed as this time. It was fiercely challenged. The Central Waterfront Concern Group walked out of the meeting to protest against the arrangement. Members of the concern group returned to the Board only after they could speak as long as they please.
But this time, the Board’s came up with a five-page administrative note for the public to follow. It also added new restrictions by prohibiting the public to make lengthy speeches by collecting the time allocated to other people. The arrangement is to formalize the 10-minute restriction.
The Board cited “statutory timeframe” in the face of large amount of comments to adjust the restriction. However, no justification is strong enough to curb the public’s right to use their right guaranteed in the Town Planning Ordinance to comment on town planning. Large amount of comments is a result of the plan’s unpopularity. If the Board fails to finish the plan making within the 15-month statutory timeframe, it should let the plan lapse, but not curbing the public’s to speak out against the plan. Letting a highly unpopular draft plan to lapse is an effective way to make the government stop pushing forward highly undesirable plan.
If the Board can use statutory timeframe to impose a 10-minute restriction, it can use the same excuse to impose a five-minute, two-minute, or even 30 seconds restriction or who knows what other restriction could be placed when the government keeps ignoring public opinion and putting in highly unpopular planning proposals.
The Baptist University stresses it opposes the government’s plan. Unfortunately, it decided to follow the absurd 10-minute restriction in the name of facilitating the process. It even urges the students to authorize the university to speak on their behalf. The university, when it is arguing for its expansion plan, also has a duty to defend the already very limited public participation element in Hong Kong’s town planning. It should oppose the 10-minute restriction. To comply such absurd restriction means helping the Board to make it a norm and agree in principle the curb the freedom of speech. It will be a severe blow to public participation in town planning in the future. Whoever filed their opposition to the plan and has the right to speak at the Board should also oppose and challenge this unreason rule. When we are using the rights promised in the Town Planning Ordinance to defend our right over land use planning, we also have the duty to defend the system’s integrity. Or we will let this right slipped away.