Tough approach wins land battle
Finally, land officials appear to appreciate that a law becomes meaningless if it is not properly enforced. Last week, the government launched a series of high-profile actions against some prominent cases of land abuse in the New Territories. Enforcers descended on a Yuen Long recreation park and cordoned off facilities built on illegally occupied land. Separately, the Lands Department also claimed back a 3,000 square metre site occupied by an unauthorised columbarium on an island in Tai Po. It is encouraging to see officials act tough against breaches.
The enforcement comes as a refreshing change compared with the notoriously bad record held by the department. Despite growing awareness, land use breaches are often tolerated for years or even decades without prosecutions. A case in point is the park in Yuen Long where one-third of the site has taken up government land without permission for 18 years. Only after a damning Audit Commission report did officials take action. Enforcement against the unauthorised columbarium appears to be swifter. After the operator had ignored the order to rectify the situation in February, officials invoked special legal powers to repossess the site.
It is too early to tell whether the incidents represent a major shift in enforcement attitude. But it would be wrong if the government only acts to ease public pressure.
The auditors have already expressed concerns that investigations are woefully slow. Hundreds of high-priority cases cannot be completed within the four-month target. The maximum penalty of HK$10,000 is also surprisingly low to have a deterrent effect. It is good to hear that the development minster shares the concern and has ordered a review. A tolerant approach to law-breaking activities no longer meets public expectations. There is no alternative but to act tough. With a caseload in the thousands, the task ahead is daunting. But with strong determination and better effort, the government can win the battle.