Building safety

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 August, 1999, 12:00am

There is a catalogue of tragedies linked to Hong Kong's tumbledown old buildings. Falling concrete and collapsing canopies are just two contributing factors. Inside, the situation is just as bad. Few fire exits, no smoke doors, faulty lifts, corroded pipes and dangerous wiring make many of these anachronisms into potential deathtraps.

In April, a district board member warned that 2,000 buildings in Mongkok and Tai Kok Tsui alone were in a highly dangerous state, but many owners could not afford the extensive repairs needed to make them safe. He also criticised the red tape that deterred people from applying for money from a $500 million loan fund.

Now another fatality has occurred, and before all these places are repaired or demolished there may be more.

Bureaucracy aside, the problem of upgrading many properties comes from not being able to trace the owners of each unit, otherwise some crumbling blocks might have been torn down long ago. That is the real solution; but bringing them up to an acceptable safety standard will have to come first.

A stroll around any area of Kowloon shows the extent of the dereliction. But it is impossible to inspect all these places on a regular basis, as government electricians found when they tried to carry out safety checks after the Garley Building fire. Owners must be made to take responsibility for their properties.

But if the administration is serious about tackling the problem urgently, it may need to recruit teams of inspectors to cope with the backlog of work. An emergency blitz on Ladies Street is a drop in the ocean.

As long as inspection teams carry out an average of 12 inspections a month, it will take decades to get round the thousands of buildings crying out for repair.

Laws that make owners carry out regular maintenance would make the streets safer, but permanent improvement will not come unless the new Urban Renewal Authority can employ squads to patrol run-down areas, impose repair orders and help landlords through the confusing process of attaining a grant.