Step up the battle on illegal structures

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


The fiasco involving the secret basement found inside the home Henry Tang Ying-yen owned and then transferred to his wife is a disturbing reminder of the inadequate enforcement against unauthorised building works in Hong Kong. For years, the Buildings Department has been kept in the dark about a 2,250 sq ft 'underground palace' and other alterations at two Kowloon Tong houses owned by the former chief secretary and his wife. Only after a series of media reports did officials wake up to one of the city's worst political scandals.

The fight against illegal structures is an uphill battle. They number in the hundreds of thousands, and because they have involved prominent figures breaking the law, the controversy has dampened public confidence in enforcement. Undoubtedly, the community will be closely watching whether Tang, now a chief executive contestant, will be treated as being above the law.

It is puzzling that the department appeared to have taken a more lenient approach initially. It first sent letters 'advising' demolition, even though Tang and his wife had already said remedial actions were under way. Prosecution only follows if they still refuse to comply with demolition, with a fine of HK$200,000 and one-year imprisonment. Belatedly, the department said it would also launch investigations, amid growing speculation about whether anyone had 'knowingly misrepresented' what was going on. This involves heavier penalties - a HK$400,000 fine and two-year jail term - but is rarely imposed.

Illegal structures of this scale cannot be built without the help of professionals. The scandal has raised concerns about the integrity of architects, engineers and fitting-out contractors. If in their minds, the gains outweigh the legal consequences, there is a strong case for a review. Enforcement against unauthorised building works has never been an easy task. But Tang's scandal has reinforced public support for a government crackdown. Officials must seize the opportunity to prove they are not just paying lip service to the problem but are tackling it.