Don't delay dealing with the mess over illegal structures
There are some lessons that seem to pass down smoothly from one generation to the next so descendants can benefit from their ancestors' experience gleaned the hard way. And then there are the lessons that every generation ought to be aware of, but seems to need to learn again for itself.
One such lesson is that there is always a price to pay for appeasement, and the longer you defer the evil day of calling a halt to illegality - whether big or small - the higher that price will be.
Britain learned this the hard way when it thought it could buy off Hitler in the 1930s by giving up chunks of other European countries to him, but found that each concession just increased his appetite. Eventually, the second world war had to be fought and millions of lives were lost.
Post-war Britain realised that trade union power had to be curtailed because it was bringing the country to its economic knees, but had to wait for the election of Margaret Thatcher, who had the courage to put her foot down. The result was the year-long miners' strike which caused much economic damage and left communities with a legacy of bitterness.
America is learning the lesson as the profligate retirement packages granted to public servants in previous years start to bankrupt towns, cities and perhaps even some states as the bill becomes due.
Now Hong Kong is learning the same lesson with respect to unauthorised building works. The problem exists throughout the special administrative region but is most serious in the New Territories because the appeasement of villagers has been standard government practice for decades.
Anyone doubting this need only look at the evolution of the small house policy: what began as a concession allowing country folk who worked the land to build a two-storey house on their own land within the village environs has been transformed in to a 'right' to build a three-storey house, on public land if necessary. And, if the village is not big enough, the government will enlarge it. The result is a plethora of Spanish villas with nary a villager in sight.
The problem is probably less serious, but no less rife, in the urban area and thousands of ordinary citizens are technically guilty of minor transgressions, including, as it turns out, ministers and even the chief executive.
There is a way of bringing this problem under control and it can be applied equally across the board in both urban and rural areas. But it will be painful. The government should introduce a law requiring that every property transaction submitted to the Land Registry for registration of change of ownership must be accompanied by a certificate signed by an authorised person confirming that the property in question complies fully with all relevant legislation, in particular the Buildings Ordinance, and the lease conditions. Only transfers of ownership so accompanied will be recognised.
There could also be a grace period (say three or five years) during which owners could engage authorised people to seek retrospective approval for very minor works which posed no danger, upon payment of a penalty.
Any works that present a danger, or that have not obtained retrospective approval during the grace period, would be subject to enforcement action.
A package along these lines should be able to bring the problem under control. But anyone who thinks it will be an easy sell need only look at the photograph of a Yuen Long village elder which recently graced many newspapers. With a straight, defiant face, he demanded compensation if he were obliged to obey the law in this area. No doubt at least one member of the Executive Council agrees with him.
So there will be a heavy political price to pay, but such is the inevitable outcome of a long period of appeasement. And the longer we wait, the higher the price will be.
Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. firstname.lastname@example.org