Safety of our homes and offices must be assured

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2010, 12:00am

When a building collapses in as spectacular and tragic a fashion as did the five-storey block of flats in To Kwa Wan, outrage is to be expected. Our city is wealthy and not short of the resources to ensure that high safety standards are maintained. Yet for thousands of buildings across Hong Kong, inspections have been considered too difficult to carry out and repair orders allowed to be ignored. There is no more damning proof of the consequences than the pile of rubble and broken lives. Our government was well aware of the problem. For years it had been talking about legislation that would force owners to take care of their flats and buildings. Complaints about the cost and inconvenience made the process drag on. It is ironic that just days before lawmakers were to take up the matter, Block J of 45 Ma Tau Wai Road crashed down, killing four people and making dozens homeless.

We can only be perplexed as to why authorities deemed inspections too hard. As happens so often when tragedy strikes in our city, they have sprung into action with orders and promises. A total of 40 teams of surveyors and inspectors are now urgently checking the 4,000 or so buildings 50 years and older that may also be a risk to life and limb. Why such work is possible now, but was not last week prompts not applause, but questions.

The pattern is familiar for anyone with even a passing interest in government affairs. Pressure from influential interest groups too often ensures laws that would keep us safe are ignored, delayed or left to languish. Only when tragedy or a disaster strikes do officials respond with conviction. A string of fatal fires and accidents involving minibuses and drink-drivers come readily to mind.

Then there are the cases where people have been killed or injured by a lack of enforcement of the rules. A handful and more of government sections are responsible for maintaining trees, yet a young woman still died in 2008 when a branch of one inspected just days before fell on her. The limb had rotted and was an accident waiting to happen. Authorities over-reacted by putting responsibility in the hands of a co-ordinating committee under the Chief Secretary's Office. Action where there was none or little before is human nature after a tragedy. Regardless, though, the government's coffers are flush with ready funding. We have a civil service that is well staffed and well paid. If inspections of buildings were deemed too difficult to carry out before, one has to wonder what the government sees as its role in serving and helping its citizens.

In the face of tragedy, the law legislators are looking at will go a long way to correcting what has been ignored. Owners of buildings 30 or more years old will be required to carry out inspections and if necessary, repairs, once every 10 years. The enforcement regime will be toughened, as will penalties for infringements. Putting the law in place could take 18 months; in light of the collapse in To Kwa Wan, this has to be speeded up.

We do not know why the block of flats collapsed. It is obvious that it was not structurally sound. Whatever the eventual findings, though, it is quite shocking that a building can fall down in such a way in a developed city such as ours. As belated as it may be, it is time for the government to make amends to ensure that all our homes and offices are safe to live and work in.