Red tape helps the NT dump-and-build brigade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am

Who's in charge here?

Three government departments agree a warehouse nearing completion on dumping-defaced land owned by an influential New Territories clan hasn't been authorised.

The Buildings Department says it will pull down the illegal structure - unless the Lands Department rules it can stay, which it is now considering.

Meanwhile, the Town Planning Board, under the Planning Department, has yet to hear a recently filed application for the 6,000 sq ft edifice.

Such are the contradictions apparent in government policy towards dumping and development in the New Territories. And it's not a case of one ministry not knowing what another is doing - all the departments involved report to Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, whose Development Bureau was formed in 2007 to co-ordinate the work of such agencies.

Activist groups complain that one department will sometimes sign off on work done illegally and under removal orders from another - and are pressing the government to stop approving village houses on illegal dumping sites in what they term the 'destroy now, build later' practice.

In the case of the warehouse, the dumping was not illegal but another planned development on the site was blocked last year because of flooding and environmental concerns. The warehouse is on a 24,000 square metre site at Shek Wu Wai, Yuen Long, owned by different branches of the Man clan, one of the five biggest in the New Territories.

The site was green fields until 2008, when it was covered with building waste, which was regarded as legal because the land had been zoned for open storage by the Town Planning Board in 1999.

And it may be just the start of construction in the area - last week residents on an adjacent site complained they were being evicted by landlords who had allowed construction waste to be dumped around their houses.

Descendants of General Wen Tianxiang (Man Tin-cheung) of the South Song dynasty, who fled south while he resisted the Mongol invasion of China, the Man clan is influential in political and economic matters in the northwest New Territories.

The Buildings Department said it did not consent to the warehouse construction and there could be other unauthorised structures on the site. 'We will follow up the case with the Lands Department. If appropriate, we will issue removal orders,' a spokeswoman said.

But this may never happen because the Lands Department is pondering an alternative way to legalise the structures.

A spokeswoman said that while the land lease did not prohibit warehouse or container yard uses, erection of any structures on the site required the department's approval, which had never been given.

But it was now processing a fresh application, filed by the developer on May 31 when construction had already begun, for a short-term waiver.

This is a temporary exemption given to owners who want to put their land to use that does not comply with the land lease or to relax restrictions such as those against erection of structures on agriculture land.

But there is no clear guideline on whether the waiver has to be sought before construction begins, leaving a loophole for the developer.

'If the application is rejected at a later stage, appropriate lease enforcement action will be taken against the unauthorised structures,' the spokeswoman said.

To get a waiver, the applicant has to show the Lands Department planning permission has been obtained from the Town Planning Board. But this has not been granted either, as that application was also filed only in May and has yet to be considered.

The application says the warehouse will be more than 6,000 square metres and will store electronics parts to meet increasing demand for logistics facilities.

Another proposal, for a vehicle repair workshop and container storage yard, was rejected by the board in November because of flooding risks and environmental nuisances.

'No matter what, the law has to be enforced immediately,' Friends of the Earth environmental affairs manager Hahn Chu Hon-keung, said, calling on the Lands Department not to approve the waiver.

'The developer should not be allowed to jump the gun and abuse the system to get what they want,' he said.

His group and Green Power, the Conservancy Association, Designing Hong Kong, WWF, Friends of Sai Kung, the Green Lantau Association and the Bird Watching Society have jointly written to Lam and the Town Planning Board to voice their worries over recent approvals of small houses on illegal dumping sites.

The groups want a 'clean record test' for planning applications on sites that have a history of environmental abuse such as illegal dumping, tree felling or unauthorised land formation.

This test should be reflected in the 'Interim Criteria for Consideration of Application for New Territories Exempted Houses/Small Houses in New Territories', on which the board has been relying when scrutinising applications.

Their concerns were sparked by a recent approval by the board for a house on a site at Ho Sheung Heung where construction waste was dumped and which the Planning Department says has not been fully reinstated to its former condition despite an order that its owners do so.

Green Power's head of scientific research and conservation, Cheng Luk-ki, said the criteria had to be amended to discourage any 'destroy first and build later' approach.

Paul Zimmerman of Designing Hong Kong said landowners who trashed their sites should not be rewarded with house approvals.

A Planning Department spokesman said last night it was inappropriate to consider the record of an applicant or a site in assessing a development or planning proposal.