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Government responds to Ombudsman's Direct Investigation Report on Mid-Levels Moratorium

    Following is the Government statement issued in response to the release of the Ombudsman's Investigation Report on the Administration of the Mid-Levels Moratorium today (September 14):

     The Government accepts the Ombudsman's recommendation that it should consider whether measures are necessary to supplement, strengthen or replace the Mid-Levels Moratorium, which is an administrative measure.

     We do not, however, agree with the Ombudsman's conclusion with respect to the way the Mid-Levels Moratorium has been administered and her assessment of the effectiveness of the Moratorium. All along, there has been close coordination among bureaus/departments in administering the Moratorium. The Moratorium has contributed towards containing the problem of traffic congestion in the Mid-Levels.

     Further, we strongly disagree with the point in the Report and in the Ombudsman's press briefing that there has been any "liberal" or "loose" approach by the Lands Department in determining development intensity.

     The Moratorium dates back to 1972. It was introduced on traffic and transport grounds. In the light of the traffic assessment and the known extent of development then, it was concluded that for the Mid-Levels area, all further sales of Government land, and all further modifications of Government leases to permit more intensive development, should be deferred.

     The Mid-Levels Moratorium was never intended to prohibit developments/redevelopments in the Mid-Levels area, but to restrict developments/redevelopments to what is permissible under the existing leases. As for leases that are unrestricted in terms of development rights, the Government cannot unilaterally impose a limit so long as the proposed redevelopment complies with the Outline Zoning Plan and the Buildings Ordinance. It has to be pointed out that the Mid-Levels Moratorium, being administrative in nature, cannot override private property rights. The Lands Department must respect the development rights as permitted under the lease.

     We must stress that the Moratorium is only one of a comprehensive range of measures we have taken over the past 30 years in tackling traffic congestion in the area. Other measures we have adopted include building new road infrastructure, such as the Aberdeen Tunnel, the Hill Road Flyover and the Central Mid-Levels Escalator Link, and implementing various traffic management measures. We have also put in place a network of public transport services to encourage the use of the public transport system.

     In a territory-wide context, the rapid and extensive expansion of the railway networks over the past 30 years has also helped to reduce the growth of traffic on the roads generally, including traffic in the Moratorium area. More recently, we are actively finalising the implementation details of the MTR West Island Line which, when completed, would ease the pressure for more vehicular traffic in the Moratorium area.

     The effects of the above measures are reflected in the results of our monitoring of the traffic situation in the Mid-Levels area. Over the past two decades, the general trend of traffic speeds in the area has remained relatively unchanged. For example, the average speed along the Bonham Road/Caine Road corridor varied slightly from 17.3 km/h in 1984 to 14 km/h in 1995 and 14.6 km/h in 2005. While these speeds were lower than the average speed on Hong Kong Island, the package of measures we adopted, including the Mid-Levels Moratorium, has been able to prevent the traffic congestion in the Mid-Levels area from serious deterioration.

     In administering the Mid-Levels Moratorium, the Lands Department has adopted the only rational interpretation of what constitutes "more intensive development". Its interpretation of what constitutes a "house" follows legal precedent and its approach to "no greater intensity of development" correctly takes account of what can be built under existing lease conditions.

     The Ombudsman's view that height is an issue in development intensity in the Mid-levels Moratorium circumstances is a misunderstanding. In the Government's view, there being no limit on the number of flats under the old "house" restriction, with the removal of the height limit under the modified lease conditions, the building after development may be higher, but it simply allows the same Gross Floor Area (GFA), i.e., intensity, as could be built under the existing lease conditions.  

     With regard to the role of the Town Planning Board, while it has the authority to impose plot ratio restrictions, it has to consider and seek to strike a balance between private development rights and public interest. This is particularly important when we know for a fact that there is no provision for compensation for statutory planning restrictions under the Town Planning Ordinance except in the case of land resumption. If more stringent planning control is imposed, it must be supported by strong justifications and relevant studies, as in the case in 1990 when a plot ratio of 5 was imposed for the "R(B)" zone. It is, therefore, not a question of not using more stringent planning control to achieve the restriction on development intensity.

     Implementation of the Mid-Levels Moratorium, like the implementation of many other public policies, may involve different departments. In the case of the Moratorium, the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau (ETWB) is the policy coordinator that closely monitors traffic and decides on the need for maintaining the Moratorium as one of the measures to alleviate the traffic congestion problem.

     The Lands Department, the implementing agent, is clear about its role in implementing the Moratorium under the ETWB's transport policy.

     Nevertheless, we are generally agreeable to the recommendations of the Ombudsman for further improvement. The Government will conduct a comprehensive review to explore what more can be done to relieve traffic congestion in the Mid-Levels Moratorium area. We will also consider whether there is a continued need for the Mid-Levels Moratorium. We will make public the outcome of our review and keep the public posted on developments.

Ends/Thursday, September 14, 2006
Issued at HKT 16:39