25 October 2016
Responsibilities for managing trees in Hong Kong are scattered across different government departments, leading to inefficiency. Photo: HKEJ
Responsibilities for managing trees in Hong Kong are scattered across different government departments, leading to inefficiency. Photo: HKEJ

How we can better protect our trees

Given the Queen’s College’s controversial decision to remove a hundred-year-old tree on the school campus recently, I raised a question with government officials as to the exact number of private land leases in Hong Kong that contain a “tree preservation clause”, and on the state of government regulation over tree work personnel.

Following the query last month at a LegCo meeting, the Development Bureau replied that it was unable to provide the figures I demanded because it didn’t keep any record of the number and the location of private lots whose leases contain a tree preservation clause.

The answer disappointed me a lot and also served as a reminder that there are huge loopholes in the government’s tree conservation policy.

As government officials put it, the administration is current adopting a so-called “integrated approach” to tree management on government land, under which the Tree Management Office (TMO) oversees the entire tree conservation policy in our city on a macro-level.

However, when it comes to actual on-site maintenance of trees across the territory, it is carried out by a dozen of different government departments such as the Highways Department, the Buildings Department and the Lands Department.

As far as trees in private land are concerned, their management mainly falls within the jurisdiction of the Lands Department. Under several existing laws private land owners could be held liable for any human casualty or property damage caused by their failure to properly maintain the trees within their properties.

However, since the government hasn’t got any record of the number of private leases that have a tree protection clause, through which the Lands Department can enforce the laws, the actual number of trees cut down every year on private land, many of which are rare breeds, remains largely unknown.

The fact that responsibilities for preserving trees in our city are fragmented across several government departments suggests that our tree management policy lacks both coherence and consistency. Such fragmentation of responsibilities hampers the government’s ability to preserve and maintain our trees.

To make things worse, Hong Kong currently doesn’t have a single unified piece of legislation that is tailor-made for the protection of trees, and the issue is compounded by a lack of awareness among local citizens about the importance of preserving our trees. It is an issue that the administration must address promptly.

Having said that, I believe it is time for the government to take the initiative and answer the calls among society for passing a tree protection law and establish a more unified mechanism in managing our trees.

In the meantime, the administration should also consider setting up a licensing system for tree maintenance professionals in order to make sure they are all well-qualified and up to standard.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 06.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)

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