Enforce the law to keep streets free of encroachment by shops
Hong Kong's streets are usually so narrow and crowded that navigating them can be difficult. The situation is further aggravated by pavement-hogging shopfronts, causing inconvenience and sometimes even danger to pedestrians. The government has recognised the problem and is considering ways to crack down on shop bosses who extend their businesses into the streets, including a fixed penalty of HK$1,500. The problem was further highlighted in a report by the Ombudsman that blamed government departments for not doing enough to tackle the issue. Subject to the outcome of a government consultation that ends at the end of the month, a stroll in the streets may, hopefully, be much less of a hassle in future.
The story does not end here, though. According to the Ombudsman's report, the issues go beyond cumbersome legal proceedings and low fines averaging HK$600 handed down by courts. The report noted that not only are jurisdiction and enforcement scattered across different departments, none seems willing to take full responsibility for tackling the problem. Enforcement action also appears weak, as the ratio between warnings and prosecution can be as low as 49 to one in some districts. The so-called compartmentalised mentality highlighted by the Ombudsman is certainly not unique to the handling of unauthorised shopfront extensions. Time and again, departments have come under fire for turning a blind eye to issues that they believe are outside their jurisdiction. The culture, which is common among officialdom worldwide, is the source of red tape and maladministration.
Legislation serves as much to deter as to punish. As the Ombudsman rightly warned, the higher fixed penalty should come with a fundamental change in law enforcers' mindset. It would be meaningless if the revised law is not enforced. Recommendations put forward by the watchdog, such as identifying a lead authority or a one-stop joint enforcement office, should be given due consideration.