Bring owners and contractors to book over illegal alterations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 February, 2010, 12:00am

Unauthorised building works that contravene Section 14 (1) of the Buildings Ordinance carry a fine of HK$400,000 and up to two years' imprisonment. When was the last time someone was convicted? In fact most people are not even aware that their building alterations are against the law.

There is certainly no perception of any risk or adverse consequences for owners or contractors who blithely alter building structures. Given the new trend of small flats being stuffed into 70-storey apartment towers, the government must take forceful steps to change our casual culture towards structural alterations. I would suggest a number of preventative measures.

Given the large number of violations, the current criteria for prosecution are too narrow. A parallel method of random selection should be instituted and those caught strictly punished. This preventive method raises the perceived level of risk without overworking the Buildings Department.

Second, contractors should be prosecuted alongside owners. They are the ones hacking away at reinforcing bars to remove walls or pouring extra concrete to build additions. Given their professional knowledge, fines should be levied on contractors preferentially in lieu of owners, prompting owners to report their contractors when caught.

Third, the Building Management Ordinance requires incorporated owners to keep records of financial accounts, but the law remains silent on building plans.

It should be mandatory to keep a set of Buildings Department-approved drawings, preferably with structural walls clearly marked. Besides being handy for emergency pipe repairs, they counter the excuse of, 'We didn't know about the structural wall'.

Finally, the department should work with, not against, building managers and their deed of mutual covenant (DMC) to enforce good maintenance. These deeds are agreements that bind all owners in a building on matters of paying management fees and maintaining their flats and common areas.

In the case concerning the 75-storey Highcliff apartments on Stubbs Road, where the building manager sued an owner for wall removal, the defence of the owner was that the Buildings Department approved the structural calculations ('Partition wall to stay, court tells flat owners', January 9). I would speculate that the calculations assumed the wall in question was the only wall altered in the tower. What would happen if all owners acted on the same assumption? Hence, the need for a DMC. All that wasted court time and legal fees could have been avoided if the department routinely added a line to its correspondence: 'This letter does not exempt you from compliance with the DMC of your building.'

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor called for educating the public on such matters. Densely built Hong Kong will see more people living in buildings governed by DMCs. Yet many people sink their life savings into a home with no idea about their rights and obligations as joint owners, or the concept of having to properly maintain their own flats for the mutual benefit of all their neighbours.

M. Wong, director, Fairview Park Property Management