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(File pix) Picture of Penang former assistant secretary to the governor Sir Stamford Raffles' Runnymede Bungalow, circa 1900s. Pix courtesy of George Town Heritage Action group.

GEORGE TOWN: Tougher sanctions must be placed on developers who destroy heritage buildings, a diplomat and heritage expert told the Penang government.

Former Malaysian high commissioner to Singapore Datuk N. Parameswaran said following the destruction of Sir Stamford Raffles' Runnymede bungalow here recently, the local authorities should cancel the landowners' planning permission.

"If Penang is serious about preserving its heritage, including preserving its heritage buildings, then the state and city council must mete out tougher sanctions on rogue developers.

"This includes the cancellation of licence for the project that the developers intend to develop, at the cost of destroying an irreplaceable heritage building," he said in an interview with the New Straits Times.

Recently, the landowners of the abandoned Runnymede bungalow demolished seven out of eight buildings in the complex, which dates to the 1800s.

They had used a planning permission obtained in 1999, which the Penang Island City Council says is still valid.

The owners spared the three-storey main building of the Runnymede Hotel, built in 1920s, but flattened the namesake bungalow that it was named after, built in 1808.

According to the council, the landowners were permitted to build a 23-storey and a 21-storey tower on the site; as well as a 21-storey hotel based on the same planning permission. They were also told to restore the 1920s three-storey hotel.

Parameswaran, who is also a member of Badan Warisan Malaysia, Penang Heritage Trust and the Singapore Heritage Society, said Penang's local authorities and heritage bodies must keep their heritage inventory updated.

"The state and city council must realise that if Penang loses its heritage, it will lose its attraction as one of the most appealing tourist destinations in this region, if not the world.

"There is a need to identify our heritage buildings and gazette them as soon as possible.

"In the case of the Raffles' bungalow, unfortunately, there was not sufficient publicity about its existence. This, sadly, has led to its non-existence."

Parameswaran also questioned the way the bungalow was alleged to have been taken down during the recent Chinese New Year holidays.

"The destruction of heritage buildings in the dark of the night and distracted by auspicious events is a trickery many developers have mastered in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru and very often in Penang.

"Heritage bodies can scream their heads off, but ultimately, any punitive action or redress can only come from the local authorities and the state government."

"We must prevent another Runnymede-style controversy in Penang and elsewhere in the country."

The then Penang Island Municipal Council had issued a planning permission for lots 131, 132 and 133 along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah on Nov 10, 1999 for a mixed development project.

On July 28, 2000, the 23-storey Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) building was given commencement of work permission to construct on lot 131.

However, the Runnymede Hotel complex on lots 132 and 133 had been left abandoned ever since.

Recently, the council had said the planning permission was still valid as construction on the EPF building lot had taken off, keeping the permission alive in perpetuity.

The council said it had the powers to do so under Sections 24 (1) and (2) of the Town and Country Planning Act.

The landowners had then applied to the council to demolish ancillary buildings in the complex, sparing only the three-storey hotel complex.

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