Village housing in the New Territories is something you either love or hate. For those put off by hectic urban living, the three-storey villas provide an ideal escape. But these rural housing clusters often come with problems - chaotic layout, illegal building structures and poor environmental hygiene.
Adding to the long list of concerns is fire safety. In a step that may force a change in government policy, the Ombudsman has launched a direct investigation into the fire safety of village houses. This follows complaints about fire prevention equipment being removed and emergency vehicle access blocked. Unlike urban buildings, which must allow access for vehicles in the event of emergencies, village houses are exempt. Even though the Lands Department can impose access requirements when needed, enforcement against blockage becomes difficult if the passage is on private land.
The probe is to be welcomed. Although there have been relatively few complaints - 12 over three years - newly appointed ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing has taken the right approach to an issue that concerns the safety of tens of thousands of residents. Two years ago, two boys died in a blaze in a Pat Heung village house; the walls of the neighbouring houses had blocked access for emergency vehicles. Another fire in Yuen Long took the life of a 16-year-old girl in May last year. It was later reported that some owners had removed fire safety equipment in their houses soon after obtaining a certificate of compliance from the Lands Authority.
The cases appear to be serious enough for the authorities to initiate their own review. That it has taken the Ombudsman to intervene underlines the inertia of government departments.
With all male indigenous villagers entitled to a free plot of land to build a small villa, the small-house policy is hardly sustainable. Some settlements have become overdeveloped and are death traps. Under no circumstances should public safety be compromised. The Ombudsman's investigation deserves full government and public support.