Ombudsman's Office blames lack of co-ordination between officials for 20-month hold-up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 November, 2000, 12:00am

A lack of co-ordination among officials caused a 20-month delay in a Mongkok slum project, costing $439 million in interest payments, an investigation by the Ombudsman's Office has revealed.

The inquiry called for better co-ordination and clearer guidelines in future urban renewal projects involving the eviction of shop tenants.

The controversial slum site - the Argyle Street/Shanghai Street project under the Land Development Corporation - involves the redevelopment of six streets.

The project, still in progress, affected 538 properties and 2,242 people.

The deadline for eviction was set for October 1997, but full clearance was achieved only in June last year because five tenants in a cooked-food market in Nelson Street refused to move.

The market, owned and managed by the former Urban Services Department, housed 18 licensed food-stall operators. In January 1998, 13 had accepted ex-gratia payouts from the corporation and moved out, but the five hardline tenants refused to budge and attempts to remove them in February and December 1998 failed.

The money lost was in interest charges on loans taken out by the corporation and developers to carry out the project.

The Ombudsman's Office said its probe found the department had assumed re-provisioning of tenants was up to the corporation and so 'sat back from the negotiation process'.

But the corporation believed the department, as the landlord of the food market, was obliged to clear the site and sort out tenancy rows. Also cited as maladministration by the department was its failure to foresee the legal row arising from the tenancy agreement.

In the early stages of the project, the department mistakenly believed the tenancy agreement with stall operators applied and only one month's notice was needed for eviction.

But the tenants challenged the eviction operation in February 1998, saying they were entitled to six months' notice according to the Landlord and Tenant (Consolidation) Ordinance.

In June 1998, six months' notice was given to the five tenants. But it was only in June last year that they finally agreed to accept compensation and moved out.

Ombudsman Alice Tai Yuen-ying criticised the department for its failure as a food-stall licensing authority to vacate the food market on time and to effectively terminate tenant contracts.

Although the corporation was less to blame for the delay, Ms Tai said better co-ordination between the two bodies should have been in place to oversee the process of land resumption.

'There was no overall co-ordination. Each body, as it needed something, approached the other department to seek consensus,' she said.

Without standard procedures, the department had to go back to the former urban council on every decision, which had also been time consuming, Ms Tai said.

The investigation also accused the department of being too complacent by believing the previous smooth resumptions in Sheung Wan, where no serious disputes erupted, would hold in the Mongkok case.

A 10-point recommendation list was given to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which now has the relevant responsibilities of the former Urban Services Department.

In the long run, Food and Hygiene should review tenancy agreements to clarify removal notice periods and adjust the duration of tenancy to fit redevelopment needs, the inquiry said.

In its reply to the Ombudsman, Food and Hygiene said the Urban Services Department's role had been limited to the execution of decisions by the former Urban Council, although it said it accepted the recommendations.

The Ombudsman in return said the Urban Services Department had underplayed its influence and discretion and should have taken on a more pro-active approach in advising the former Urban Council for effective resumption of the food market.