Is a structure unauthorised or illegal? That is the question
One of the burning issues for the past few months has been the question of illegal structures on the buildings of some of our politicians. Some news stories describe them as illegal, others as unauthorised, while yet others appear to use the terms interchangeably.
For the sake of our sanity and possibly the community at large, we asked the Buildings Department if there was a difference and, if so, what. This was some weeks ago, and our question has drawn a resounding silence. Maybe the department feels it is too politically sensitive to make a comment at this time.
So we have asked around, and it appears that the matter is as described by John Latter in a letter to this newspaper earlier this month.
There are structures that are outright illegal because they are buildings which have not been approved by the Buildings Department. Without mentioning any names, those that build a structure on the basis of plans not approved by the department are well into illegal territory, as are the contractors who carried out the work.
Then there is the question of minor works that cover what in Hong Kong are politically sensitive issues, such as covered car ports and rose trellises. This is a game that is played by many in the city. If you want to add something to your flat without checking first with the department, the risk is that it may notice the alteration and say it does not comply with regulations. The structure at this stage is unauthorised, or 'udub', as those in the trade call it.
The department then issues an enforcement notice, and the offender has to take the structure down within a certain period. If this occurs, there is no fine and no illegality. Offenders can then submit a formal proposal to build the structure. They cannot build a structure and make a submission to get it authorised. Or they can challenge the department in court. If the enforcement notice is not complied with within the stipulated period, the structure then becomes illegal.
There is also a third category. These are the 118 items of minor works that the department says it will allow but will not authorise. Since we suspect there are many out there who are quivering with fear at the prospect of a dawn raid from the department's enforcement unit, the details can be found at: www.bd.gov.hk/english/services/index_buildingAmendent.html.
Is having a trellis a firing offence?
The overwhelming question is how all of the above affects our politicos, some of whom have been cast in a very dark light on account of a suspicious-looking sun deck, balcony, trellis, car port and so on.
Let's take our chief executive, C.Y. Leung, for example. He told the media during his election campaign that he had no illegal or unauthorised structures at his home. If the Buildings Department had not looked at his property or served him with an enforcement notice, then he is correct to say that he didn't have any unauthorised or illegal structures. However, following a visit from the department, some of the structures were found to be unauthorised. Since he removed them pretty quickly, they were not illegal.
The next issue is, does having an unauthorised rose trellis on your property mean that you are not a fit and proper person to be chief executive? This surely cannot be the case. We can think of far more substantial instances where the issue of being a fit and proper person has come up, but given the subject's standing in the upper reaches of Hong Kong society, they were able to carry on regardless as if more or less nothing had happened.
Mr China and all that
Anyone who has read the excellent book called Mr China by Tim Clissold will recall that it goes into some detail about a Western company that sets up joint ventures in China and is systematically ripped off by its partners. The book, which should be required reading for anyone doing business on the mainland, is both chilling and hilarious. We were reminded of the book when we noticed over the weekend that German car giant Volkswagen said it had become the victim of industrial espionage in China, where its local partner had allegedly stolen engine designs, according to the business daily Handelsblatt.
For several months now, FAW, with which VW has a joint venture, is believed to have copied one of the VW engines in what the newspaper described as 'systematic and planned' espionage, AFP reports. FAW planned to sell a car equipped with the engines in Russia, in competition with VW and Skoda, the report said.
'It's quite simply a catastrophe,' it quoted a VW manager as saying.