GEORGE TOWN: The Penang state government is not seriously committed to enforcing the rules laid out in the George Town Special Area Plan (SAP).
This, said heritage activist Mark Lay, was because the state government was very aware that Unesco was unlikely to delist the city as a heritage site even if it loses the very criterion for being listed.
“It’s very unlikely that George Town will lose its heritage listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site (WHS) as the organisation is often reluctant to intervene even when outstanding universal value is being threatened.
“There are many examples of Unesco WHS around the world which are under more threat than George Town but sadly Unesco does very little or nothing, and a great example of where Unesco is not being effective is Venice, which should have been delisted years ago due to overtourism and commercialisation.
“In the case of Venice, it is not even on the heritage in danger list as Unesco uses the reasoning that it is up to the state party to effectively manage and protect its own site.
“Sadly the state government is also very aware that it is very unlikely that George Town will lose its WHS status, hence the reason why George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) and Penang Island City Council (MBPP) are not seriously committed to enforcing the rules laid out in the George Town Special Area Plan,” he said, when contacted here today.
Lay was asked to comment on a latest report by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) titled “Building Social Capital: The George Town Experiment”, which stated that some 8,500 residents from 591 households left the site two years after its nomination as a World Heritage site in 2007, during which there were 18,660 residents.
The report also stated that between 2009 and 2013, some 231 residential properties have been repurposed to accommodate other commercial activities. In the same period, hotels and tourist accommodations in the area had grown from 61 premises to 97 and the number of restaurants and bars had increased by 46 premises.
The report noted that by 2015, there were 211 properties vacant and the increase in rental by property owners had driven out many of the site’s original tenants, taking along their social and cultural history with them.
“While its inscription as a World Heritage site has successfully boosted the image of Penang and paved the way for the state to rejuvenate its tourism industry, it also exerted additional pressure on housing affordability,” the report said.
Lay said there was so much GTWHI could do to save the situation such as training a heritage monitoring and enforcement task force, which patrols the George Town WHS daily looking for illegal renovations and demolitions.
“They could give financial incentives to George Town WHS property owners to retain traditional trade and residential tenants, place a limit on the numbers of new hipster cafes, pubs, tourist souvenir shops and hotels within the site and zone certain side streets as residential only.
“They could also close down any non-traditional trades within the city which are operating illegally.
Lay said the measures, plus many others were clearly outlined in the George Town SAP.
However, he said, sadly the Penang authorities simply seemed to largely ignore this document
“Instead GTWHI seems more focused on holding events and symposiums, where they pat each other on the back but actually implement nothing to safeguard the heritage.
“All effective heritage management ideas laid out in the George Town SAP are falling on deaf ears,” he said.
In addition, he said, although the George Town SAP clearly mentions the state party is "always eager to engage with concerned groups and citizen, the reality was that anyone who has a differing view to the official state view was banned and blocked from attending GTWHI symposiums and workshops.