Home owners' unfair burden

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 October, 1997, 12:00am

The Government is planning to introduce a Building Safety Inspection Scheme, requiring owners of old buildings to appoint authorised people to inspect their property at regular intervals, and to carry out remedial works if necessary.

In the past few months a number of accidents due to dilapidated buildings and illegal structures have occurred, some causing serious casualties. Complaints about dangerous buildings and falling objects from external walls number thousands every year.

According to the Buildings Department, there are about 22,500 private blocks more than 20 years old. Among these, 6,500 are 40 years old or more and are likely to have suffered extensive structural defects from natural deterioration. These old buildings are potential sources of danger.

Under existing government policy, the Buildings Department will only inspect buildings which are either the subjects of complaints or targets of its planned surveys. The scale of these surveys is limited by the staffing of the department. There is no guarantee that any dangerous building will be spotted in time to prevent accidents happening.

As a more effective measure to ensure all privately owned buildings meet safety standards, the Government intends to pass legislation to make it the owners' responsibility to have their buildings inspected, maintained and properly repaired.

For residential buildings more than 20 years old, owners will be served with an inspection order every seven years. On receiving the order the owners will have to appoint architects, surveyors or structural engineers to make a general appraisal of the condition of their buildings.

No further action will have to be taken for a particular building if the inspector's report satisfies the Buildings Department that the building is safe. However, if problems are found, another order will be issued for a detailed investigation to be carried out, followed by repair works if necessary. About 3,000 buildings will be vetted each year.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong agrees that new measures must be taken to ensure that old buildings are properly maintained, but believes the Building Safety Inspection Scheme would be more efficient and acceptable if the initial step of making a general inspection is undertaken by the Government, without incurring any expense on the part of building owners.

This will greatly reduce the number of property owners involved in the vetting procedure, for only a very small fraction of buildings will require detailed investigation and repair works.

Some may argue that the responsibility of keeping a property safe lies with its owner, and that it is unfair for the Government to pay for safety inspections of private buildings with taxpayers' money.

It should be noted, however, that the scheme would make regular inspections compulsory, although the majority of buildings do not need these inspections to make sure they do not pose any threat to public safety. Owners cannot escape legal liability even if their property causes any harm to others.

From a practical point of view, it can be very difficult to collect money from all flat-owners in a building to pay for safety inspections, especially when there is no owners' corporation, as is the case in most buildings.

The cost of a general inspection is probably between $100,000 and $200,000 for each building. Inspecting 3,000 buildings a year will cost $300 million to $600 million. This is not an unreasonable sum for the Government to pay, considering the vast amount spent on public housing maintenance each year.