Safe houses

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 December, 1999, 12:00am

As director of the Buildings Department between 1994 and 1996, Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping caused an outcry by ordering the demolition of illegal rooftop structures which were fire hazards. She also had to deal with a number of accidents where slabs of concrete fell from old buildings causing death and injury.

The zeal with which she went about her work did not endear her to people who were evicted. They complained of inadequate rehousing arrangements and double standards in her department's enforcement of safety rules. Nor was she popular among her staff, who felt her crusade against illegal structures after years of government neglect had unfairly exposed them to undue criticism.

Mrs Yu will now have a chance to vindicate herself by undertaking her new job of reviewing policy on building safety and maintenance with the same zeal that brought her opprobrium. Having found building safety an intractable problem, she has her task cut out for her in streamlining the labyrinthine regulations that barred her from accomplishing her initial mission.

Absence of adequate regulations in previous decades has saddled Hong Kong with a mammoth problem of dilapidated structures, some of which have never received a thorough inspection.

There is no automatic arrangement, as in other countries, for owners of a block to contribute to a fund so that annual maintenance can be carried out and buildings kept safe and in good condition. Many buildings do not even have a proper management set-up.

The thorny question, as Mrs Yu has pointed out, is what role the Government should play in imposing rules on private property. There is no doubt that owners should be held responsible for the danger their properties pose to the public. The question is how.

Even if all owners of a block are made to contribute to a maintenance fund, it will take a year or two before there is enough money on hand to cover large-scale renovations. It may prove difficult to penalise people who claim lack of money for urgent repairs.

Mrs Yu will leave behind a lasting legacy if she can come up with innovative ideas to prevent further accidents involving falling canopies, crumbling masonry and blocked fire exits.


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Safe houses

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