10 years is too long to enforce the law
Hong Kong frequently proves that what goes up can just as easily come down, no matter where it is located. The old Hyatt-Regency Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Ritz-Carlton in Central were cases in point - it was as if one day they were there, the next they were not. That is something the government needs to keep in mind as it enforces laws covering illegal structures on village land in the new Territories. Months or even weeks is all that should be needed to have them removed - not years.
Each job could be done in a mere day or two, of course, but bureaucracies require time. Inspectors have to be sent out, removal notices issued, compliance checked for, fines determined, papers filed - and perhaps there will be legal challenges to drag matters out further. But authorities also have the indigenous villagers' representative, the Heung Yee Kuk, to contend with. The powerful rural body's top brass have been behind protests and unhelpful proposals; villagers have been advised to ignore removal orders from the Buildings Department and take cases to the Building Appeals Tribunal, while kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat has backed the adoption of delaying tactics to ensure that the present administration is not involved in negotiations.
Orchestrated delays or not, it seems authorities also intend to take their time removing what could be hundreds of thousands of illegal structures. A Development Bureau paper last week indicated that consultants who will identify the worst infringements of the law would not be appointed until the first quarter of next year and that funding would be needed for a chief officer to formulate a strategy and oversee operations. The officer's tenure would be for 10 years, until March 2022 - apparently an indication of how long the job will take. Such a time frame seems excessive given how quickly buildings are torn down and replaced in our city.
Finding what is illegal is not difficult. Indigenous adult male villagers are permitted to build a three-storey house, with each floor being no more than 700 square feet. Little effort is required to detect extra storeys, enclosed rooftops and canopies or projecting structures. Indeed, the Ratings and Valuation Department already has much of the information. The law is clear that they are illegal and the fact that authorities have been remiss in having them removed over the years is no excuse for non-compliance. They are unauthorised and, as such, pose a risk to tenants and passers-by.
Six months have passed since development minister Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised a crackdown. Arguments have been put by villagers and their leaders, but the law is unambiguous and safety is being compromised while it goes unenforced. Authorities are obligated to act promptly. There should be no more delays.