Letter sent to Carrie Lam, Director for Development, Home Affairs Department
3rd November 2010
It was a pleasure to meet you at last week’s Sustainability Dinner. I’d like to take the opportunity to follow up with you by highlighting some of the main difficulties that we are experiencing on Lamma Island. Though I have illustrated these points with specific examples, the issues are by no means unique to Lamma and, in fact, can be found all over Hong Kong. They do, however, have a negative impact on the quality of our living environment and as such are a matter for your attention.
For brevity’s sake, I have limited my comments to five main areas. These are:
1. Standards of Government Contractors
Living Lamma launched a campaign to clean up Lamma over a year ago. As part of that campaign we produced a booklet of around 250 photos showing rubbish, design and maintenance problems. We discovered that many of these are caused by government departments, or their contractors. Here are some examples, which fall under your responsibility:
Whenever work is carried out by CEDD, the first thing they do is to put up an ugly grey, often rusty, hoarding. These create eyesores and demonstrate a lack of respect for the residential, rural environment in which work is being undertaken. Elsewhere in the world, government contractors are required to put up hoardings that do not have such a negative visual impact. Often these are painted green and decorated with plant life of some sort.
We notice that these standard hoardings are used wherever CEDD operates. It is our belief that by doing something as simple as raising standards in this respect, could send a powerful positive message: that government does care about the environment. It would also set an example that private contractors in the community could follow.
The DSD has recently put in a large concrete nullah, which starts at the base of a beautiful green valley and is zoned for agricultural use, and ends on Yung Shue Wan’s harbourfront. This in itself has created an eyesore (see attached paper on the CPA for pictures). Soon after the DSD poured its concrete, ruining the green view from the path, the adjacent landowner dumped a huge amount of rubble and other waste onto a nearby lily pond and destroyed that. Lamma people used to stop on the bridge with their children to look at the fish in the stream. The DSD project has created an ugly channel with black water that backs up from the sea leaving waste and silt. Of course drainage canals are necessary to address flooding problems, but why can’t they be designed better for residential, rural areas?
The DSD is also undertaking the laying of sewage pipes and there have been a great many problems with the behaviour of the contractors. One resident I spoke to moved off Lamma after work dragged on for a year near his home and he was greeted with the smell of urine every time he stepped onto his balcony. The workers were using the front garden as a toilet. As there is no designated area for contractors to store materials, temporary works sites sprang up everywhere and these became dumping grounds for all kinds of rubbish. Things have improved after we met with the contractors, but it has taken a lot of time and effort on our part to achieve even a basic level of care for the community. Surely DSD should be taking charge of this?
One of the photos that Living Lamma included in its booklet was of the WSD building in the Yung Shue Long valley. This is on a main path, yet has been so neglected that it no longer had any paint on it and was in itself an eyesore. WSD have finally started to repaint it, eight months after we made the complaint. Why does it take a complaint from the public for a government department to properly maintain its building? Surely this should be done as a matter of course?
With all the talk of water conservancy, why is it that the only notice in the WSD notice board (which is also shabby) is from 2000? There should be opportunity to provide an educative role and work with the community on water conservancy. In a community like Lamma, there is no reason why every village house should not be fitted with a waterbutt, so that rainwater can be used for gardening. In the UK and Europe, these are attractively designed and covered with safety locks for children. In Hong Kong, the only thing available is an open, ugly, plastic barrel, that is neither safe around children, built to endure the climate or suitable given the problems of mosquito breeding. Why is there no mechanism for WSD to work with the community to provide sustainable solutions?
At a very basic level, WSD is very responsive if you need a new pipe. However, we have had several complaints that the contractors do not take the old pipes away and often leave a mess of discarded cigarette butts and water bottles behind. In some places, there are now several old rusty pipes lying next to the path. (Incidentally, there are also derelict electricity poles and PCCW poles). This is clearly not sustainable and just adds to the mess. Like other contractors, those from the WSD throw their plastic water bottles, cigarette packets and butts, and other waste into the undergrowth wherever they work. This is beyond the responsibility of the FEHD and so is not often picked up, unless by a member of the public.
It is standard practice for the Lands Department, if government land is being used without authorisation, to put up an ugly metal fence and large ugly sign. We understand that they have to take steps against illegal occupation of government land, but we wonder why more attractive fencing and signage could not be used, or why government does not landscape such areas. The Lands Department insist that they can only use standard material, even when those standard materials make what should be a beautiful village look like an industrial site. There are two examples of this on the waterfront in Yung Shue Wan and in a further case government officers ripped out a lovely little garden that was tended by a local lady and her children and put up their sign.
2. Constraints of Frontline Staff
We have found that the frontline staff across all departments to work very hard and be responsive to complaints if the nature of the complaint falls neatly within the purview of a single department. One problem is that there seems to be no mechanism for ongoing maintenance without complaints from the public. One example is the railings. We included pictures in our booklet of government railings that had been allowed to rust to such an extent that they were falling over (which seems to be standard practice). HAD organised the replacement of these, with exactly the same type of railings, which we imaging will never be repainted unless a member of the public makes a complaint in future. The old railings were not taken away, but have now been stockpiled on private land, adding to our waste problems.
We have also managed to have a railing repainted, but there must be miles of railings in need of attention. We are now considering running a competition in the community to see who can cause the greatest amount of railing to be maintained by complaining to government, but surely this should not be necessary? Why is it necessary for members of the public to complain just to get government to carry out basic maintenance?
What lies within the purview of a department often does not meet the needs of the community. This is obvious when you try to clean up an area. If it is a question of waste, it depends on what type of waste it is and where it lies as to who will be responsible for cleaning it. If it is on private land then nothing, in practice, can be done. We are currently trying to clean up the entrance way to Tai Peng New Village. This is a small area and the task sounds simple: put a railing along the path where there is a dangerous drop, re-concrete the path and the stairs that are crumbling, clean up the construction and green waste that has built up over time, improve the bin area so that waste does not get pushed back to other areas, improve the landscaping with some simple planting and renovate the gateway (Pai Lau).
So far, this has required the involvement of HAD, LandsD, FEHD, and the Buildings Department just to talk about cleaning the area. To ensure that people take better care in future, we believe that there should be some simple planting, which will require LCSD’s involvement (and they have not proven be very responsive so far). It also turns out that government cannot put a railing on the most dangerous part of the path because this is private land. They can re-concrete the pavement (government land) but not the steps (private land). They cannot remove the enormous pile of green waste (that government contractors have in part been responsible for creating) because it is on private land.
The Lands Department has written to the owner, but have not received a response. This seems to be standard procedure and if no response is received (perhaps the owner has moved) no further investigative action is taken and so there can be no solution.
3. Lack of Opportunities for Community Partnership
There are many people in the community who would like to actively improve things. In the above example, there are enough people in the community who would be willing to do the work. However, as things stand we cannot do this without either illegally cultivating government land or trespassing on private land. Though we have offered to help and will continue to do so, community involvement is not, generally speaking, actively encouraged. We are hoping to facilitate things in this case and have been in touch with the village heads, who will seek permission from the owner if he can be found.
We will continue to seek partnership opportunities. We believe that if you can get the community actively involved in cleaning up an area and making it beautiful, then it is more likely to stay that way. Current practice is for the Lands Department to hire contractors from Tuen Mun to come and clean up rubbish black spots. This is very costly and means that local people have no ownership of the waste they create.
We are very fortunate on Lamma to have a head of the Rural Committee who understands the importance of involving the community. He has just offered us a piece of his land to create a community garden. While the land itself is not on our list of problem areas, we hope that through this project we can create a positive example of how community groups like ours can work with private landowners to create an area of beauty. There is no reason why similar partnership could not work for areas of government land if the department involved allowed it.
4. Inappropriate Design
There seems to be no concept in government about rural design. Minor works projects are not sensitive to preserving the look and feel of the village. Though the ideas for improvement are reasonable – a drainage nullah, a clock tower, a cycle park – the way in which these are designed and the materials that are used just result in eyesores (see the attached paper for details of these examples).
This is damaging. Not only does it mean that development is not sensitive to the environment, but it also is the cause of a lot of ill feeling in the community. Often the project proponents, the Rural Committee or the District Councillor, are blamed for the eyesores created by minor works, though they have little control over the design. When the Head of the Rural Committee ask government to provide attractive street lighting, the response from government was that it would cost ten times as much and therefore would not be done. As a result, our street lighting is of the same type that you would find on a highway. The poles are not even painted, but are bare metal. In other villages in the world, it is normal practice for such “street furniture” – lights, notice boards, benches, railings, etc – to be in keeping with the character of the village and actually provide opportunities for visual enhancement.
5. Lack of Leadership
Many of the problems highlighted above could be resolved with some leadership. It seems ridiculous to be addressing a government Secretary on such operational issues, but it often proves very difficult or impossible to carry out the simplest improvements for reasons highlighted above. Leadership does not necessarily have to come from the top, but changes need to be made to empower those at lower levels to act and provide solutions that are not constrained by bureaucracy. Appointing project champions to solve community developmental challenges, so that the buck cannot be passed from one department to another, would help. Leadership can also come from the people who live within the community, but we need a government that is flexible enough to respond to good ideas. Though there is a consultation process, this often fails (as in the case of the CPA below) because possible solutions do not involve standard materials or standard design, or perhaps, there is no real commitment to listening to the public.
I have attached a paper that Living Lamma produced on the proposal for a Cycle Parking Area (CPA) in Yung Shue Wan. This case study also demonstrates the eyesores recently created by government on Lamma. Though we have proposed alternative designs for the CPA, these cannot be considered as bureaucracy dictates that the budget has to be spent in the next fiscal year or clawed back. As our local representatives have been asking for a CPA for at least 7 years, they are eager to push ahead, regardless of the flaws in the government design – a concrete platform over the last remaining part of natural coastline, with “type 2” railings and no landscaping, which we believe will not solve the problem of bike parking and in fact will create yet another eyesore for everyone who steps off the ferry.
They are probably right in saying that more appropriately designed alternatives would lead to a delay of another 7 years, and they have no guarantee that government can do it (we can’t even get good-looking street lights, get pavement upgraded, or get rubbish cleared up from some areas). So our local representatives take what they can get.
This defies common sense. Why, in a city such as Hong Kong, with its wealth, its educated and well-travelled population, its access to information, is money spent to create something that is ugly? Why can’t that money be spent on creating something that is beautiful? That is appropriate to the environment? That is sustainable? Though many of the examples above involve other departments, these questions are firmly about development and it is these questions that I hope you can help us to answer. In so doing, we hope to see better designed development that will enhance our living environment in future.
Living Lamma members are happy to work with government to resolving the issues raised above. Should you or any of your staff require further information, please feel free to contact me.