There are no plans, at this stage, to enact legislation to improve air ventilation in Hong Kong which lawmakers have described as Asia's "Walled City."
The remark by Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung during a question-and- answer session in the Legislative Council Wednesday immediately drew fire from members.
Due to public concern that the tight disposition of new buildings in the territory is creating a "wall-like effect," which is not conducive to air circulating around them, Tam Yiu-chung of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong asked Suen whether the government plans to set building height limits for waterfront sites on his bureau's Applications List.
Suen replied that land development in Hong Kong should comply with the development parameters of the Outline Zoning Plans, and height restriction is one of the essential development parameters.
He said the government had issued the guidelines in July to address the air ventilation problem and optimize an urban design which allows for more wind penetration through the city, especially in public areas.
The guidelines were drawn from urban design guidelines which suggest that infrastructure projects that create visual and physical barriers should be avoided. They also stipulate that buildings should not have a "wall-like" effect and that waterfront buildings should maintain visual permeability to the harbor.
However, the guidelines on air ventilation are applicable only to major government projects.
For private projects, including property developments above railway stations, the government only "encourages" project proponents to refer to and adopt the guidelines in their planning and designs, Suen said.
He also confirmed that "at present, we've no plans to enact legislation to enforce the Qualitative Guidelines on Air Ventilation."
He explained the main reason for this is because the contents of the guidelines involve some nonquantifiable planning and design issues.
"At present, it's not desirable to implement them compulsorily through legislation," he stressed.
Suen's reply angered medical-sector lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki who criticized what he called the "snail's pace that cannot solve the problem."
Kwok asked: "Does the government want to wait until all `wall-like' buildings have been completed before enacting legislation?"
Green group Green Sense said the SAR's air pollution problem is a burning issue and that legislation enforcing the guidelines should not be delayed further.
"The nonbinding guidelines are useless because nobody will follow them. Only legislation can deal with such an urgent need," Green Sense president Roy Tam Hoi-pong said.
He said Hong Kong is fast becoming "Asia's Walled City" rather than "Asia's World City" as the government claims.
"We've done a survey on 155 housing estates in Hong Kong, and 104 have a `wall-like' design," Tam said, citing Tai Kok Tsui and Tseung Kwan O as the best examples. Tam was also worried a new project in Tai Wai in Sha Tin will be the next affected area.
He said the blocked air flow is hazardous to health and the quality of life. "If the government fails to address the problem now, our air quality will deteriorate sharply and health of Hong Kong [residents] will pay the price," Tam added.
Meanwhile, Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works Sarah Liao Sau-tung said the government will review Hong Kong's Air Quality Objectives next year, for the first time since 1987.
Critics argued that the AQOs - the measurement of the territory's air pollution - are outdated and offer no protection for Hong Kong citizens.
Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet- mee said although the government plans to conduct a review next year, it would probably take another 18 months for it to materialize.
"In other words, we've to wait until the end of 2009 to have new AQOs. Isn't this too slow?" she asked.
Unionist lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said: "I really doubt if Hong Kong has the courage to catch up with the standards on air pollution set by the World Health Organization."