• Mon
  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 12:11pm
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 5:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 6:23am

Hong Kong is being choked by its government bureaucracy


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

A few months ago we wrote about the extraordinary amount of time it took restaurants to get permission for outside seating accommodation, otherwise known as OSA.

We had noted that it was taking at least seven months for restaurants at the China Resources Building to extract this permission from our ever-vigilant civil service. But little did we know that this process was already a ferment of bureaucratic activity.

It transpires that in December 2012 the French Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce met the convenor of the Food Business and Related Services Task Force (FRSTF), under the Business Facilitation Advisory Committee, to discuss concerns over the time it was taking to process OSA applications.

According to the FRSTF report on this matter (http://bit.ly/1mHm3bw), the chambers urged the government to streamline the procedure. The application process is run by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).

It turns out that outside seating is a highly complex matter and applications involve a host of issues such as the right of land use, impact on nearby residents and traffic requirements.

It is therefore necessary for FEHD to make referrals to six departments - Lands, Buildings (or Housing or Architectural Services), Fire Services, Planning, Transport and Home Affairs.

The report says it takes a mere 53 working days for processing "simple straight forward cases". The average period in 2012 was 10 months, while others have taken more than two years.

The report notes that the process involves nine government departments, though most of them had little interest in OSA. The paper drily observes, "The trade suggests shortening and simplifying the overall process."

The upshot of the working group's investigation was a list of recommendations, the advantage of which was not immediately obvious to the uninitiated like us.

We now understand why applying for licences and permits from the government for matters such as OSA has spawned a specialised industry of agents to act on behalf of restaurants, and thereby increase their cost of doing business.

Our article a few months ago had lamented that it took one restaurant seven months to secure its OSA permission. In fact, we should have been over the moon since it was three months faster than average.

When one considers the amount of time it takes the civil service to allow a restaurant to have a few extra chairs and tables outside a restaurant, one begins to get a sense of the bureaucratic malaise that is enmeshing Hong Kong. Small wonder it cannot organise itself to get a halfway decent harbour front, or why there is a shortage of moorings for boats while there are literally acres of space in typhoon shelters that are standing empty.

While our political leaders are champing at the bit trying to get things done, our civil servants, those that attempt to execute policy, are stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire.

Hong Kong is choking on its own bureaucracy. This is a serious problem, but as everyone knows reforming the civil service is one of the hardest things to do. There are too many vested interests at stake. Small wonder then that the chairman at yesterday's meeting drew attention to a letter of appreciation from the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the joint efforts of the nine departments in completing its review. Whether the restaurant business will feel significant change has been achieved is highly questionable.


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This article is now closed to comments

In US 2 cities I went to build extension normally takes 1 days to A week! To get a building permit I added around 20% to the existing house. Hk is the most bureaucratic cities i ever been. But yet the quality if the building in hk are so bad many have water leaking problem.here in us we have much stricter building code withstanding wind of 150 mph. I really don't understand the hk system. I saw the village houses across my place built for over one year but seems never finish. And in between no government came by to check structure, plumbing etc along the process. In US the 2 town I'm in, we build house in 3 months and every 2 weeks we have official came by to check in between. If failed, they will came back again in a week. hK is getting to slow in doing things....
Indeed! Part of the problem with HK's awful building laws is that officials are incredibly reluctant to make a decision on any application for approval. It either takes forever or the BA imposes impossible conditions. Accordingly, citizens just build anyway - the likelihood of any enforcement action being taken is very remote so they usually get away with it, especially in the New Territories. That's why there are countless "illegal structures" in Hong Kong which the BA doesn't have a hope in hell of dealing with properly.
Rather than turning normally law abiding citizens into law breakers, the sensible way to do things would be to streamline the approval process, making it faster and easier to implement (and more understandable) - and rather than adopting a "NO" default, the BA should adopt a more accommodative policy. That way, there wouldn't be so many illegal structures and the structures that are built would be safer and more in keeping with the local environment.
Indeed. It took the Lands Dept 4 years to grant friends a short term lease of their garden in the NT.


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