Nail down owners' role in care of buildings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 12:00am

That the government finds it necessary to consult the public on whether owners should be responsible for ensuring their buildings are in good repair and bear the cost of maintenance speaks volumes about the pathetic state of building management in Hong Kong.

One would have thought that in a capitalistic society where private property rights are sacrosanct, this should not have become an issue and owners would find it in their interests to preserve the value of their assets by taking good care of them.

The reality, however, is that many owners have not only failed to keep their properties in good order, but have also come to think that the government is responsible for dealing with the problems caused by their dilapidated buildings. Even if we accept that the government has to bear partial responsibility for failing to enforce building codes rigorously in the past, there is no reason why excessive amounts of taxpayers' money should be used to redress problems caused by private neglect of private properties. In fact, these owners should be called upon to bear the social costs of their negligence.

Unfortunately, a combination of woolly logic and populist politics has been allowed to muddle the divide between private property and public responsibility. For example, a law passed in 2001 to set up the Urban Renewal Authority requires it to pay owners of residences in rundown buildings earmarked for redevelopment sufficient compensation to buy replacement units in the neighbourhood that are just seven years old. No wonder that owners of units in poorly maintained buildings are not interested in renovating their flats, but have every incentive to encourage the authority to bring in the demolition team.

To help owners keep their buildings in good condition, the government envisions 'the development of a multi-disciplinary industry capable of providing competitive long-term, one-stop services that meet the different needs of different owners and different buildings'. It is hoped that by integrating proper maintenance with effective management, problems and defects will be detected and rectified early.

A small number of reputable building management companies have long been providing such one-stop services, mainly to up-market or relatively new residential estates. The question that needs to be asked, but has not been raised in a consultation paper, is why their number has remained small. The answer from the industry is that there has been no compelling need for most owners to call in the experts until their buildings are already sick. And that often means after they have been slapped with an order from the Buildings Department to fix faults that pose a danger to life and limb.

A mandatory inspection scheme identifying defects and requiring repairs to be undertaken periodically is mooted as a possible way forward. But it is not the government's preferred course of action on the grounds that this passive approach does not encourage continued care of buildings. Instead, a voluntary classification scheme to recognise well-maintained buildings is preferred as a means of encouraging owners to maintain their buildings properly.

But it is difficult to see how the government's preferred option would enhance maintenance and management standards at buildings that need professional help most. For many of the 11,000 buildings without owners' corporations and not serviced by management companies, it would seem that a much tougher approach will be required to prompt owners to band together to fix the faults that afflict their buildings. A good classification would not be a strong enough incentive to motivate them to act.