3 chances to save building missed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2010, 12:00am

At least three opportunities to save a To Kwa Wan tenement building were missed before its fatal collapse last week, it emerged yesterday as questions were being asked about whether the city's building and redevelopment systems are working properly.

First, district councillors did not nominate the site when asked which buildings needed to be inspected under the government maintenance scheme launched last year.

Second, the Urban Renewal Authority considered redeveloping the area last year but dropped the plan because many flats had already been bought by private developers.

Third, at least two orders were issued to remove illegal structures on the ill-fated building but neither had been complied with.

The tenement, block J at 45 Ma Tau Wai Road, was reduced to rubble in seconds on Friday afternoon, with the loss of four lives. Citing the tragedy, town planners and a government adviser yesterday questioned whether the city's building and redevelopment systems are working properly.

Since the launch in March last year of the Development Bureau's maintenance scheme, under which HK$2 billion in refurbishment grants is available to owners of old buildings without owners' corporations, district councils have been consulted on what buildings should be included.

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wrote to Kowloon City District Council in March to seek a list of buildings in need of maintenance. The council's chairman sent Lam's message to councillors in April and asked them to make recommendations on a form.

While at least three councillors - Ng Po-keung, Rosanda Mok Ka-han and Pun Chi-man - said they received the form and returned it to the department by fax, councillor Siu Yuen-sheung, who serves the district where Friday's collapse occurred, said she was unaware of any invitation to nominate buildings.

'I did not know what blocks the Buildings Department had selected for the scheme, and I don't know why the council did not send me the form,' Siu, a member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said.

A person familiar with renewal projects said the area was among sites considered by the Urban Renewal Authority early last year. But it was dropped after a study of land records showed more than half the tenement buildings had been bought by private companies, including Richfield Realty, which has been targeting old flats in urban areas.

Buying the flats from developers usually costs much more than compensating individual owners. Instead of paying the value of a seven-year-old flat, the authority would have to compensate developers for the forsaken redevelopment opportunity.

As well as twice ordering repairs to the building, the Buildings Department said it issued two orders, in November 2005 and in June 2009, for removal of illegal structures near the balcony on the first floor and on the ground floor, but they were ignored.

Although engineers said illegal structures and alterations, such as turning a balcony into a living room, would increase loading on a building, the department said there was no indication its illegal structures were a risk to the building that collapsed.

'The department only gives priority to illegal structures posing immediate danger. Many buildings are left decayed until a real risk develops,' urban renewal strategy steering committee member Ho Hei-wah said.

The Home Affairs Department was expected to help buildings form owners' corporations, but it had not performed its mission well, he said.

Institute of Surveyors president Raymond Chan Yuk-ming said that while councillors received complaints about old buildings, they did not have the expertise to identify buildings in need of repair. They required professional help.

Town Planning Board member Ng Cho-nam said old areas suffered from a lack of incentive to provide proper maintenance. 'Those living in the aged buildings are tenants. The owners are those investors waiting for a property boom,' he said.