Drive for housing should never falter
A lull in the public controversy about illegal structures does not mean the issue has gone away. Now is a timely opportunity for reflection. As our recent special report demonstrated, the rules under the Buildings Ordinance have become so complicated that even professionals find it difficult to tell whether minor alterations and additions to homes that do not affect structural safety are acceptable. Revelations that senior officials are among the untold number of people with illegal structures has done nothing to resolve the confusion and uncertainty.
A law that makes law-breakers out of law-abiding people cannot be good. Yet a law intended to make buildings safe and hygienic cannot be all bad. The trouble is, not only are the rules hard to understand but breaches have become so widespread that the law is increasingly difficult to enforce.
That may not have been the case when it was passed 50 years ago. But the rules have not kept up with the changing way in which we live. Hongkongers have had to adapt their crowded and cramped building environment to the lifestyle choices of an advanced society.
This has resulted in the proliferation of internal and external additions, alterations and enhancements, many of them apparently illegal, or technically illegal. Or are they illegal? Despite the introduction of simplified procedures for allowing minor works in private buildings, that question still arises, and it can baffle experts.
The fundamental intent of the law is to prevent physical and health hazards in and around our homes. In a place subject to destructive winds and rainstorms, last week's severe typhoon was a reminder of the importance of safety. But tweaking with countless amendments over the years has blurred the original focus of the ordinance.
The extraordinary media coverage of illegal structures has led to calls for a full overhaul of the measure. Professionals interviewed by the South China Morning Post have called for better public education and a more flexible approach to revitalising existing buildings.
New Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been constrained in his public response by lawsuits arising from disputed statements about illegal structures at his own home. But he should take the first opportunity to declare that a review of the ordinance by an expert panel representing the law, relevant professions and the public is a priority of his government.
Trying to repair an outdated regime risks making the rules even more complicated than they are now and even more difficult to enforce.
Nothing is more destructive to the respect for government and the rule of law than rules that cannot be enforced.