Hong Kong needs strategy for safe buildings

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 3:11am

Indignation is to be expected when people are forced out of their homes, no matter what the reason. The occupants of a dilapidated building in To Kwa Wan are understandably upset that their flats were declared too dangerous to live in and have to be partly demolished. Worse, they were only given seven days to move out, after they ignored a maintenance order. One has to ask why residents and officials did not take more steps to avert the crisis.

The six-storey tenement building became structurally unsafe because for years the balconies were enclosed and subdivided into cubicles. It is among the 4,500 old blocks identified in safety checks prompted by the collapse of a tenement on Ma Tau Wai Road that killed four people in 2010.

The government has since erected emergency support to shore up the first-floor balcony, while ordering the owners to report on the structural integrity of the building. But high costs and the lack of a management committee to follow up meant no action was taken. Eviction could have been avoided had the residents attached higher importance to the safety threats and had government departments actively followed up on compliance at an early stage.

The residents are now lobbying the Urban Renewal Authority to rebuild the entire block. They have vowed to stay put, though the eviction deadline is today.

It's regrettable that the authority is being urged to step in at the last minute. The case underscores the lack of an overall strategy to tackle building safety. Redevelopment may be an option that pleases many, but it may set a bad precedent of rewarding owners who ignore maintenance. Many old buildings face similar problems. The authority has to justify why priority should be given to this case and avoid sending the wrong message, one that would encourage non-compliance.

The inspection of thousands of buildings is just the first step to improving building safety. It does not help if flat owners turn a blind eye to enforcement. It is done for their or for tenants' safety; it is their responsibility to take good care of their flats.