Lands officials have to set good example

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am


Nothing is more irritating than having your complaint shunted aside by government red tape. The latest example was one we wrote about last Friday after the Ombudsman looked into a simple water seepage case and found that the Lands Department had dragged its feet in fixing a problem arising from an illegal structure left in its custody 20 years ago. The case speaks volumes about the typical 'not-my-duty' mindset among civil servants.

It started with a leaky roof commonly found in old buildings. When the problem worsened in March 2010, the person living on the top floor complained and sought help from the Buildings Department. They were told that the illegal rooftop structure that caused the seepage was actually held by the government but that the Lands Department, which was responsible for correcting the situation, had refused to take any action. It is shocking that the Lands Department snubbed another government department even when the leakage had rendered the structure potentially dangerous. The department argued that it was not liable for any responsibility because the structure 'temporarily' belonged to the government pending an unresolved land lease dispute that was two decades old. Only upon further wrangling did the department take steps to have the structure removed.

The outcome would have been very different had a more proactive approach been taken. No doubt the case involved complex legal issues, but that does not give the department the excuse to dodge its responsibilities. The Ombudsman rightly criticised lands officials for folding their arms at a time when public safety was involved. The case underlines a deep-seated culture in which civil servants tend to instinctively shirk from anything they think falls outside their job.

The question of illegal structures is becoming a major issue. If the department in charge of land is reluctant to do its part, how can the government set a good example for other property owners to follow?