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Credibility sorely lacking in consultation on third runway

The neutrality of Airport Authority as host of the exercise

South China Morning Post – 29 August 2011

The public consultation for the Airport Authority’s Master Plan 2030, which proposes ways to expand airport capacity, including building a third runway, ends this Friday. Are the opinions expressed so far rational? Has appropriate and sufficient information been accessible in a timely manner to the public, beyond just professionals and politicians? Is the process of consultation fair?

There has been an open English-language platform for exchanging diverse views and counterarguments. Topics have included the operational and management inefficiency of the authority; missing opportunities for collaboration between airports in the delta region; grand promises of economic benefits and employment; neglect of social and environmental costs; and, irreversible effects to the ecology and its diversity. Like most people in the discussion, I see some good parts within the plan. But I am sceptical of many areas of it while we try to determine what is best for Hong Kong people.

Unfortunately, Chinese-language newspapers have portrayed a polarisation between economic development and environmental protection. That leaves a false impression that environmental protection is a stumbling block for economic development, without realising that the objective of pursuing growth and prosperity is ultimately to have a better quality of life for human beings within ecological limits.

The fact that the Airport Authority has been assigned to host the consultation is fundamentally flawed. It is running a business and, like any other corporation, it will not be so foolish as to fully report to clients all negative consequences of a particular plan or proposal. This may be why, only after two-thirds of the consultation period has passed, and following tremendous pressure from activist groups, it succumbed and released eight initial assessment reports of around 2,000 pages, which were only available in English.

Many people said these reports and the authority’s grand proposal are incoherent. It is like a jigsaw puzzle of a “white elephant” without all the pieces. The public is expected to digest this huge volume of information in a month. Incredibly, the consultation period on phasing out incandescent light bulbs is the same as for this huge infrastructure project costing more than HK$130 billion, with much larger long-term consequences.

The role of the Hong Kong government is deeply conflicted. It has an inescapable role to balance the interests of individuals against the common good, and to inform the public not just of any positive values of a third runway, but also the potentially negative aspects, too. However, it is hiding behind the Airport Authority’s sole pursuit of economic interests.

If we look at cities such as London, Frankfurt and Munich, their airport expansion proposals were not created only by their airport management companies. The British government, for example, took control of consultation on the third runway at Heathrow, as did the state governments of Frankfurt and Munich for their expansion plans. Being accountable to the public, the British government hired independent consultants to estimate carbon emissions from building an extra runway.

Could we see similar processes to assess the impact on our environment and public health? Would this not show that we are committed to a “do our best” approach, which means taking all practical steps to reduce pollution, rather than the “waste bin” approach that falsely assumes our environment is not bad enough?

The consultation will soon end. Society has been left with more scepticism than trust in the Airport Authority. In the opinion of many respectable professionals, academics and politicians, a government-led consultation would be more credible. So, let’s have a second-stage consultation led by the Hong Kong government, which has a more comprehensive grasp of overall economic development and regional planning.

Mayling Chan is CEO of Friends of the Earth (HK)

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