Oh What A Lovely War!

There is a totally unnecessary confrontation going on between the government and various interest groups over the zoning of a small parcel of land on the Central Harbour waterfront.

There may still be time to fix the problem with the application of some common sense, but unfortunately this is a commodity not much in evidence so far.

The issue arises because of a clause in the agreement between Britain and China in 1994 over what would happen to land in Hong Kong then occupied by the British Garrison. The agreement itself taken overall was a testament to the two governments' pragmatism and ability to make sensible arrangements in the best interests of Hong Kong's future.

In brief, it provided that 14 out of 39 sites would be taken over by the PLA Garrison in 1997 while the remaining 25 would cease to be occupied for military purposes and would instead be released for general community use.

The agreement also said "The Hong Kong Government will leave free 150 metres of the eventual permanent waterfront in the plans for the Central and Wanchai Reclamation at a place close to the Prince of Wales Barracks for the construction of a military dock after 1997."

It was always understood that PLA warships from time to time such as during emergencies or on ceremonial occasions would wish to berth there, but for most of the time the open space between the sea and any on-shore facilities would form part of the waterfront promenade.

It is a point of total disbelief among our rival tourism destinations around the region that Hong Kong has hitherto made so little of the fantastic resource of its natural harbour. For as long as I can remember various administrations have been promising that this oversight would be remedied in due course and local residents and visitors alike would one day be able to enjoy a promenade right along the harbour front from Sheung Wan to Causeway Bay.

In due course the reclamation was undertaken, the due length of sea wall was constructed vertically so as to permit easy berthing of warships, and some way inland a few minor shore facilities were constructed.

So "one day" had arrived at last, but then it all went wrong.

What should have happened is that the small area around the on-shore support facilities would be zoned military land on the outline zoning plan and reserved for garrison use. And all the space between there and the sea should – like the rest of the promenade – have been zoned open space for public enjoyment. A small footnote to the plan could have recorded that the relevant area would from time to time be used by the military.

But instead someone somewhere decided that the entire area from the facilities up to the sea wall would be zoned for military use. The effect of this slip of the planning pencil is that public entry, far from being the natural state of affairs which it would be for more than 90 per cent of the time, is now at the discretion of the commander of the PLA garrison.

Now I for one have no doubt that the commander is now and is forever likely to be a reasonable chap. On the few occasions in a year when he needs the space he will roll out the folding gates, direct the public walking in the area round the back of his own activities (if they don't wish to pause and watch, which I suspect many will), and the world will go on.

But understandably those who have been waiting for decades for the waterfront promenade resent the reversal of priorities. Many thousands of objections have been lodged against the draft zoning plan.

The Town Planning Board, apparently determined to reinforce its public image as rubber stamp extraordinaire, is playing fast and loose with its proceedings, while the government pretends that this zoning arrangement is a requirement of the 1994 agreement which it clearly isn't.

So there we have it: a classic phoney war left over like so many problems from previous administrations.

And the only casualty will be government credibility. No great loss there then.