Answers needed on land-use scandal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am

In a city crying out for role models, architect Daniel Heung Cheuk-kei is a great disappointment. Almost a week after it was revealed he had improperly turned a warehouse on government land into his residence, he is still hanging on to the chairmanship of the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education.

The committee is responsible for promoting civic awareness and a sense of national identity. The post is not one that demands the office-bearer to have specific expertise. But the community expects the holder to have the moral standing to set an example of good citizenship.

What Mr Heung did with his leased property in Sha Tin's Kwun Yam Shan village was a clear violation of the rules. His breaches might not have amounted to a criminal offence. In the court of public opinion, however, he is definitely guilty of exploiting loopholes in the rules to secure himself a spacious two-storey home with gorgeous garden and stay there for an inordinately long period. His conduct has cast a shadow on his integrity.

Stepping down from the committee's chairmanship would be the least that Mr Heung should do to show remorse for his lapses. Instead, he has withdrawn from public life since the scandal came to light on Monday. He should submit his resignation immediately, if only to save further embarrassment to his cousin, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

The way in which the Lands Department handled the matter should also raise serious questions about its ability to uphold the law. The property concerned was originally rented to someone else. However, under as yet unclear circumstances, Mr Heung moved into the site in 1983 and managed to obtain the department's agreement to transfer the tenancy to him in 1994. In 1990, the department found the property had been misused and issued several warning letters. But Mr Heung was able to stay put. Mr Heung says he moved out in 1999 after the department rejected his application to turn the property into a residential site. Even so, his tenancy of the site as storage was allowed to continue.

Why was the tenancy allowed to be transferred to Mr Heung in 1994? Did the transfer go through proper procedures, such as an open tendering? Why wasn't he kicked out of the property for breaching the zoning rules? Has the department followed established practices in handling the case at all times? Or has it gone soft on Mr Heung because of his standing as an architect and Town Planning Board member? Has the department been lax in enforcing the law in looking after government land? How often does it take back leased sites that are put to the wrong use?

These are questions the director of audit should ask the Lands Department and other relevant authorities. The public has a right to know if cronyism or bureaucratic ineptness was to blame for allowing Mr Heung to get away with creating a luxurious residence on government land.