Rural housing policy rewards bad behaviour

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 May, 2010, 12:00am

Suppose you failed to pay the government what you owed it for the maids' levy on your former helper, and then tried to hire a new one. The Immigration Department would rightly refuse to grant the new helper a visa. Otherwise, it would amount to condoning bad behaviour.

This is not a difficult concept to grasp. Today, however, the Planning Department will offer no objection to an application for the building of a small house in the New Territories in circumstances that are similar in principle, although the facts are very different. A Ho Sheung Heung villager has applied to build a small house on his plot while not in compliance with an order to remove construction waste illegally dumped on the agricultural site. He has also failed to carry out an order to restore it to its original state.

The landowner fought an enforcement notice served on him and fellow owners by the department for 10 months until April by applying for an administrative review, and has recently cleared some of the waste. But he remains in breach of the order. Nonetheless, the department supports his application, citing strong demand for small houses in the village and the proximity of agricultural land to the existing village zone.

If the Immigration Department were to follow this example, it would cite a strong demand for helpers to justify turning a blind eye to unpaid levies and depriving the government of revenue - an unlikely scenario that would incur the wrath of audit officials and result in a swift promise from the government to enforce the law.

But planning permission requests - at least for indigenous male descendants in the New Territories - are apparently considered in isolation from enforcement of town planning rules.

The Ho Sheung Heung case has reignited accusations that the government is failing to enforce the law on recalcitrant New Territories landowners and that the planning system facilitates the practice of 'destroy first and build later'. It has added to the perception that there is one law for rural residents and another for those in urban areas. The case also highlights two obstacles to proper urban planning in the New Territories, resulting in ill-planned village development and eyesores like illegal dumps and container and scrap metal yards, as well as neglected farmland.

One is the small-house policy under which indigenous adult males are entitled to build a three-storey house. The other is the incoherent approach taken by different government departments with an interest in land use - and abuse - and planning requests. They continue to operate as if in separate unrelated compartments. For example, the Environmental Protection Department investigated the illegal dumping and successfully prosecuted a truck owner, drivers and a plant operator, but has raised no adverse comment about the small-house application. Bureaucrats may be respectful of other departments' territory, but surely it would not involve treading on anyone's toes to say that rewarding those who degrade the environment does nothing for efforts to protect it.

The Planning Department's reason for supporting the application implies a shortage of small-house sites. That is another good reason to review the small-house policy. While the government continues to treat it as a political hot potato it will inhibit sensible planning in the New Territories. Today's town planning hearing should send the right message by not approving an application that effectively seeks a reward for bad behaviour. Villagers should not be encouraged to think they can act with impunity.