Make land offenders pay for flouting rules

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am

Nothing, it seems, is more valued in Hong Kong than land. It's strictly controlled by laws and regulations and when it's up for sale, attracts among the world's highest prices. Almost 40 per cent is protected for conservation and recreation. Given its importance, you would expect the maintenance of its value to be one of our chief priorities.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case. While the government owns all but a fraction of land, it's struggling to prevent illegal uses, mostly in the New Territories. Roads, buildings, fences and even bridges have appeared. Removing them is costly and, as records show, little is recouped in fines and repayments for land restoration.

Taxpayers foot the bill. Over the past five years it has cost HK$10.1 million to demolish 1,038 structures. Yet only HK$11,000 was recouped. Blame inadequate policing, wily offenders and woefully outdated penalties. Here's a case in point: a man caught for excavating slopes, building a road, felling trees and blocking a stream with a concrete bridge in Lo Lau Uk, Tai Po, two years ago was fined HK$7,500 - the maximum penalty is just HK$10,000 and six months' jail. Repairing the damage cost HK$374,119, an amount he has been ordered to pay, but authorities have yet to receive a cent. Don't hold your breath - only five offenders paid up between 2005 and 2009.

Land boundaries are much disputed in the New Territories. Indigenous rights coupled with conflicting documents lead to confusion, frustration and greed. Outside country parks, 30 per cent of Hong Kong's area sits idly in the government's land bank, either unusable due to terrain or in reserve for future development. It's not surprising that when officials aren't looking, uses are found for it.

There have been numerous recent cases in country park of rules being flouted and land destroyed. Attention has been drawn to unzoned pockets, and these need to be promptly designated. But given the general abuses taking place, it's also important that management and policing be reviewed. A good starting point would be to revise fines so they reflect the value of our land. And collecting the money that's already owed to us, the people of Hong Kong.