The Office of the Ombudsman has launched an investigation into the government’s controversial move last month to chop down two decades-old banyan trees in the Central and Western district.
The Ombudsman announced on Monday that the probe is aimed at determining if there was “maladministration” in relation to the felling of the trees along Bonham Road.
Three government departments — the Lands Department, the Home Affairs Department, and Tree Management Office of the Development Bureau — will face scrutiny in the investigation.
The departments will be examined to see if their decisions and actions were in line with the relevant policies and procedures.
The watchdog will, among other things, take a look at how the Lands Department had looked after the two trees, and whether its decision to cut down the trees was based on good reason.
Also under assessment will be the involvement and role of the Tree Management Office in the incident, and the consultation work of the Home Affairs Department.
The investigation by the Ombudsman comes after authorities on May 20 cut down two old trees that stood outside the Tang Chi Ngong Building of the University of Hong Kong despite protests by conservationists.
Officials justified their decision, saying the trees — which were more than 70 years old — had become weak and were at risk of collapsing, posing a danger to pedestrians.
But critics questioned the move, accusing the authorities of not doing proper consultation work before proceeding with the tree felling, and also not taking enough care of the old banyans.
Chiu Siu-wai, Associate Professor of Biology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, argued that there was no objective data on the condition of the tree roots, and that justifying a felling decision simply on the grounds that the trees were close to a popular road may be insufficient.
The Ombudsman had in June 2016 issued two investigation reports, “Government’s Handling of Four Stonewall Trees along Bonham Road” and “Government’s Tree Management Regime and Practices”, after the Highways Department removed four healthy “stonewall trees”.
The reports offered a number of recommendations, and the Ombudsman has been monitoring the progress of their implementation. The latest probe comes against that backdrop.