Timely overhaul

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 12:00am

Each time a passerby is injured by a potentially lethal object falling from a building, there is another effort to tighten the regulations so the streets can be made safe to walk in. But progress is frustratingly slow.

Last November one legislator criticised a government proposal to mortgage the flats of owners who refused to pay their share of repair bills as 'uprooting the spirit of capitalism', as if monetary considerations were of more importance than people's lives. Yet over the past decade this debate has dragged on: 20 people have been killed and 121 injured, some very seriously, in incidents caused by unsafe structures.

In theory the existing regulations should be sufficient to curb the problem. The Building Management (Amendment) Ordinance empowers the Secretary for Home Affairs to order compulsory management for buildings with a problem. If work is not begun in a specified time, warning letters can be issued; when all else fails government contractors can carry out the repairs and recover the costs from the owners afterwards.

Owners who have difficulty finding the cash can be helped. The Government has a $500 million low-interest Building Safety Improvement Loan fund for people in reduced circumstances. Preferential terms are given to elderly owners. And a second $200 million Fire Safety Loan Fund is available for internal renovation and re-wiring. There is no excuse for owners to shirk responsibility for the state of their buildings.

Some 11,000 ageing blocks between 20 and 40 years old are scattered across the SAR, making it virtually impossible for them all to be inspected under the present system. Weather conditions and the poor quality of building materials mean that concrete without protective coating has only a 20-year lifespan unless it is regularly maintained.

Now that the urban renewal programme has been given the go-ahead, some of these festering tenements will be bulldozed, but with 200 clearance areas on the books it will take many years to get through them all. Many more deaths and injuries can be expected.

In the meantime the Government is aiming at a seven-year time span to improve building safety. That seems an optimistic goal given the red tape to be gone through before action can be taken. Progress would speed up if inspections were made mandatory and more teams hired to work through the backlog, as the Buildings Department is proposing.

Registering the default on title deeds if owners refuse to pay, so the money is recovered when the property is sold, may be harsh but it is not unjust. One irresponsible person should not be allowed to endanger the lives of neighbours or passersby. Legco must put safety first by supporting this move. Property owners have plenty of options. It is time to give a little consideration to the man and woman in the street.