Overhaul outdated law to protect land
Despite growing public awareness of land abuses, government officials are still notoriously slack when it comes to enforcement. Blatant breaches are often brushed aside or tolerated for years without prosecutions or punishment. The problem is aggravated by terribly outdated rules and ridiculously low penalties. The outcome, not surprisingly, is disappointing and sometimes infuriating. The problem has been put into perspective by government auditors in a report tabled to the Legislative Council on Wednesday. A commercially operated recreation park in Yuen Long was found to have illegally occupied government land without sanctions for 18 years. It is shocking to hear that the Lands Department did not prosecute, despite 25 site inspections and 12 warning letters issued. Park owner Leung Fuk-yuen, a vocal rural leader who opposes the government's crackdown on illegal structures in the New Territories, refused to remove the facilities built on unauthorised land. He argued that they were built for visitors' convenience. The explanation is hardly convincing. Both the department and Leung deserve public censure.
The number of suspected cases of land misuse reportedly rose 15 per cent last year from 2008, to 8,406. Sadly, investigations are woefully slow. As of December, 494 'high priority' cases had missed the four-month completion target, with four dragging on for more than a decade. The maximum penalty of HK$10,000 is also disproportionately low compared with the benefit violators have gained. It was imposed only twice in the 21 convictions between 2008 and 2011, with fines totalling just HK$81,900. There is a strong case to overhaul the decades-old law to bring it up-to-date with a strong deterrent effect.
The scarcity of land has made prudent land management and use a matter of paramount importance. This requires effective laws and responsible civil servants who take good care of public resources and money. However, there is still much room for improvement.