Ombudsman's criticism gets short shrift
The Development Bureau has openly rejected advice from the Ombudsman in the first such instance in three years after the watchdog criticised the Lands Department for being loose in granting land leases at HK$1 a month.
But the Ombudsman stood its ground, saying it would deal directly with the department, which falls under the bureau.
The watchdog said the department had 'failed to play its role as a gatekeeper' over how special short-term tenants - who were supposed to use the cheap land for government-endorsed, non-profit purposes - actually used their plots.
The Ombudsman also dismissed an assertion by the Lands Department that it had no responsibility to query justifications given by government bureaus or departments for granting the leases.
The Lands Department deals initially with applications, usually from non-government organisations, seeks opinions from relevant government agencies, then approves the leases if they are endorsed.
The Development Bureau said the Ombudsman's suggestions would not be followed. The bureau said it would be a breach of the department's duty to question an approved decision from other administrative units. 'It is inappropriate for the Lands Department, as an agent for land, to go beyond its power on the level of policy support,' it said.
In the investigation report issued yesterday, the Ombudsman said the department and other bureaus or departments involved had 'shifted the responsibility to each other ... when problems arose'.
It was the second time recently that the department had come under fire from a government watchdog: in March the Audit Commission said it had been lax in not preventing illegal use of government land.
In all, 570 plots of land have been granted under such tenancies, all for an initial period of a year followed by renewals every three months.
In 1993, a drug-rehabilitation centre, with the support of the Security Bureau's narcotics division, was granted land that was later found to have lain abandoned for 17 years.
In 1999, a school claiming to be non-profit four years earlier had apparently switched to profit-making when it changed its name, but the then education and manpower bureau did nothing about it, the report found. The school finally began to pay a market annual rent of HK$400,000 in 2010.
'In granting short-term tenancies at nominal rent, the government essentially allows the tenants to use the land, a public resource, almost for free,' the Ombudsman said.
It said the Lands Department had no comprehensive mechanism or procedures for the vetting, renewal and monitoring of such tenancies.
A spokeswoman for the Ombudsman said the watchdog would arrange direct liaison with the Lands Department on its suggestions.
Although compliance is not mandatory, the spokeswoman said the Ombudsman had the legal power to communicate with the chief executive over any issues of his concern.
The last time the Ombudsman's advice was openly rejected was in 2009 when the Examination and Assessment Authority expressed 'reservations' to a suggestion that its staff's attitude be reviewed after revelations of faulty marking.
Plots of land granted under peppercorn tenancies, all for an initial period of a year followed by renewals every three months