Don't wait for next tragedy to happen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 June, 2011, 12:00am


The new town of Tin Shui Wai became known as the city of sadness in the wake of domestic tragedies blamed on social and economic pressures. We hope an old tenement locality does not acquire a similar label as a result of disasters such as the building collapse, and now a fire, in Ma Tau Wai Road in Kowloon that each took four lives in the space of less than 18 months. The accounts of survivors of this week's fire are a reminder of how dangerous old, run-down tenements can be. They told of locked escape routes from subdivided flats, a locked door from the rear staircase of the building to the roof and stairs obstructed with mattresses and flower pots. An inspection of nearby buildings by this newspaper revealed similar hazards.

The building collapse, in January last year, was only two blocks away. It is not a stretch to tie the two together because building safety and fire safety go hand in hand. The collapse has been linked to structural renovations that weakened load-bearing supports. Flats in the building had also been subdivided to increase rental income - a factor in this week's nearby fire tragedy.

It is not as if these events are the only wake-up calls about the danger of a bigger disaster. Two stand out in recent memory. The first was from a jury looking into a fatal fire that started in a karaoke club in Mong Kok. This panel of lay people was able to list 11 things that needed to be done to improve fire safety and help prevent a similar tragedy. Some have application to this week's blaze. The second was from the Ombudsman, who found after a management review that enforcement of fire prevention measures by the authorities was lax, even where surveys had revealed serious deficiencies.

These tragedies usually spur a flurry of official activity, such as stepped-up inspections of old buildings. But outdated laws do not make it easy to compel owners to take proper care of their flats and buildings. The government has been talking about new laws for years. The Development Bureau has finally put a bill before legislators to upgrade building safety. A major step would be professional inspections of common areas in old buildings every 10 years. Other measures include empowering officials to enter flats for inspections, and regulation of the subdivision of flats to ensure it is done by qualified contractors. They require the amendment of dozens of regulations and, sadly, are unlikely to take effect before next year.

So long as Hong Kong's rich-poor gap continues to widen and low-income earners cannot afford decent accommodation, there will be a market for subdivided flats. Until poverty is tackled, the least the government and lawmakers can do is to show a sense of urgency about ensuring that tenants' lives are not put at risk to maximise rental income.