A campaign that seeks to temporarily reprieve lawbreakers who turn themselves in can be a pragmatic solution, especially when the wrongdoings are so common that enforcement has become increasingly difficult. The registration scheme for illegal structures in village houses is a case in point. Those who willingly declare less dangerous fixtures may be allowed to keep them, subject to safety checks once every five years. Regrettably, the scheme appears to have been cold-shouldered by many. Only 18,000 registration forms had been received when the extended deadline expired last month. The figure is said to be way below the tens of thousands of fixtures believed to exist in the New Territories. The lukewarm response suggests people have little confidence in the system. A rethink on how to tackle the problem is urgently needed.
The law against illegal structures was enacted half a century ago for good reasons. It ensures buildings are free of add-ons that may otherwise make them structurally unsafe. This is essential in a small city in which every household tries to make better use of every inch of space it owns. The dangers posed by unauthorised alterations in times of typhoons and rainstorms make compliance all the more important.
However, over the years the law has not been taken as seriously as it should have been. Low public awareness and slack enforcement mean breaches are widespread in both urban and rural areas. Indeed, some find the law going too far in banning minor works that do not compromise public safety.
The problem is further spiced up by scandals involving illegal structures found at politicians' and celebrities' residence. The government risks being accused of not upholding the rule of law if it fails to treat everyone equally. The Buildings Department has repeatedly vowed to act tough. But with limited manpower, enforcement against tens of thousands of breaches will be difficult, if not impossible. Officials have estimated that it may take some 10 years to resolve the problem. Even if the government is as determined as it says it is about a crackdown, strong resistance is expected. Some villagers have heeded a boycott of the registration scheme, saying they are prepared to fight.
The illegal structure saga has already become a hot potato whose approach warrants a rethink. It is difficult to see how it could be resolved satisfactorily if the law and the enforcement strategy remain unchanged.