The High Court yesterday gave de facto approval for the dismantling of the 50-year-old Queen's Pier when it dismissed a judicial review application by two activists.
In a 20-page judgment, Judge Johnson Lam Man-hon said former home affairs chief Patrick Ho Chi-ping, who was also the Antiquities Authority, had acted within the law when he decided not to declare the pier a monument despite its Grade I historic status.
Lam said he was satisfied Ho had exercised his discretion by considering relevant advice, including examining the pier's Grade I historic status given by the Antiquities Advisory Board and recommendations from the Antiquities and Monuments Office.
The court also said the board's function was merely advisory while the decision of declaration lay with the authority.
"It is crystal clear that the power is vested upon the authority, not the board," the judge said.
Lam said it is not the court's place to interfere with an administrative decision nor to review matters embodied in the authority's judgment.
The ruling clarified that there was no direct connection between a building being graded and being declared a monument.
In its May 9 meeting this year, the board declared the pier a Grade I historic building.
But graded buildings, even those classified as Grade I, may not become monuments, Lam said.
Of the 607 graded buildings over the past 27 years, 54 have been demolished including five Grade I buildings.
The applicants submitted that the Antiquities and Monuments Office had on May 9 listed several points in favor of the pier and which convinced the board to grant it a Grade I status.
However, it made a "massive U-turn" in its May 22 report prepared for Ho and which said the pier did not possess the requisite significance to reach monument status.
The judge said the office agreed the pier had historical value, but had never considered the structure had adequate significance in warranting a declaration.
Applicants Chu Hoi-dick and Ho Loy from Local Action expressed deep disappointment over the ruling and vowed to continue their fight to bring about changes in heritage conservation.
They said they will also explore with their legal representatives the possibility of an appeal. Chu said the ruling only proved the the development chief, as the Antiquities Authority, has supreme power in deciding which building is a monument and which is not.
"The Antiquities Advisory Board is no longer a respected organization within the system," he said.
Ho Loy said that according to the judgment only prewar buildings had value.
"The campaign to conserve Hong Kong's culture will not end here. This is just a beginning," Local Action said.
The group will gather at Edinburgh Place at 4pm Saturday to demand the reopening of the blockaded square.
A Development Bureau spokeswoman welcomed the judgment and said it was time to move on.
She said hoarding work around the pier was complete and will be followed by the removal of metalware and nonstructural parts and the erection of temporary support for the structural parts of Queen's Pier. "All parts to be retained will be carefully dismantled and removed for proper storage," the spokeswoman said.
According to the plan, the dismantling of the pier could start as early as August 16, two weeks after the eviction of pier activists on August 1.
The validity of the Antiquities Advisory Board's function and Hong Kong's policy on heritage conservation came under scrutiny in light of the ruling.
Board member and Chinese University of Hong Kong architecture professor Bernard Lim Wan-fung said the public may now scrutinize the board's grading system especially since there is no direct link between graded buildings and monuments.
Lee Ho-yin, director of Hong Kong University's architectural conservation program, said the judgment is fair considering it was made under a problematic and confusing framework of heritage conservation. He said the government needs to clarify relations and responsibilities between the board, the office and the Antiquities Authority.
"The ruling actually has exposed the confusion. Before no one would have noticed," he said.
"But as society becomes more aware of heritage conservation, more and more people will contest the system."
If the government remains nonchalant and does not take a closer look at the current conservation policy, more conflicts may arise in the foreseeable future, he said.