Local Counsel - Heritage storm in a planner’s teacup

LATELY, some prominent people in Penang have been busy commenting about a letter to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The letter was from Dr Lim Mah Hui, a member of Penang Forum, a non-governmental organisation, to Dr Mechtild Rossler, the director of the World Heritage Centre in Paris.

It was to inform Unesco that the Penang state government is planning to build a multi-storey transport hub to accommodate an elevated light rail transit (LRT) line and two elevated monorail lines. The cost is estimated to be US$9.95 billion (RM40 billion).

The transport hub is to be located near Komtar, the seat of the state government. The important issue is that the proposed transport hub will be next to the heritage buffer zone.

Those interested to read the four-page letter can google "Sia Boey: That letter to Unesco".

Lim's letter to Unesco has attracted negative responses from not only Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and state executive councillors but also senior government officers.

The general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporate, Dr Ang Ming Chee, was reported to have said that "Penang Forum surreptitiously sent a lengthy 15-page letter complete with pictures and appendices to Unesco in Paris alleging 'serious and specific danger' to the heritage site."

Wong Hun Wai, the chief minister's political secretary, also chipped in. He said the people would have to judge whether Lim's act of going to Unesco despite the state government being open and transparent with him, is proper.

Alternatively, there are also Penangites who do not see anything wrong with Lim's letter to Unesco.

According to Khoo Salma, the deputy president of Penang Heritage Trust, "If the project has absolutely no impact on the outstanding universal value of George Town, there are no negative consequences."

Government leaders and their supporters must realise that in democratic countries, there will be questions or even disagreements with state policies and proposed projects. It does not mean that those who object or disagree are against the state leaders.

More importantly, the letter to Unesco was not to push for the deletion of the World Heritage Site. It is not easy to delist World Heritage Sites. So far, only three sites have been dropped. They are Sengay National Park (Ecuador), Timbuktu (Mali) and Butrin (Albania). The deletions were not the result of non-compliance with Unesco's standards but were voluntary actions of the local people.

Neither was it a criticism of state and municipal leaders. The purpose is to request for a careful environmental and historical assessment of the proposed project. In fact, LRT is a good option for a place lacking integrated public transport and will result in fewer cars on the roads.

If Unesco comes to know of the transport hub after it has been built and finds that its location is not in compliance with heritage policies and rules, the state government may be asked to look for another location.

The cost to move it to another location will be very high, both in terms of money and time. It is better to know of Unesco's position on the proposed transport hub before it is built. The cost to change plans is small.

Penang needs good policies to maintain its irreplaceable historic elements while encouraging and enabling development for a more progressive city.

Writing to Unesco is seen as indicating that Penang planners and urban policy advocates cannot deal with their own planning themselves. At the same time, there is no need to attack Penang Forum for taking up what it believes to be the right approach.

The best way is to balance heritage value with infrastructural development. As in the case of Amsterdam, modern transport exists side-by-side with canals and buildings dating back to the 16th century.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com