Fire rules for villages must be enforced

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 1:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 1:30am

The problems with village houses in the New Territories are so well known that there is no need for another investigation. But the latest probe by the ombudsman into lax fire safety regulations has rung alarm bells. It was found that the requirement for village house owners to build access roads for emergency vehicles "exists more in form than in substance".

The anomaly begins with the exemption for village houses to build emergency vehicular access under the building law. Instead, there are guidelines requiring construction of such a road when a housing cluster exceeds nine villas. But the reality is that owners can get around this with the excuse of geographical constraints or land ownership issues; and opt for sprinklers or other fire safety facilities.

The result is that only the 10th villa is equipped with anti-fire installations, leaving the rest in the cluster at risk in the event of a blaze. Since the guidelines came into force in 2006, over 90 per cent of the houses built have opted to forgo building emergency access. Even when the road is built, the land owner can change the usage as long as it stays within the lease conditions.

The ombudsman has rightly expressed concern that a road pivotal to people's lives and safety can "lawfully disappear" at any time without government intervention. The problems owe much to the outdated policy of allowing each male indigenous villager the right to build a three-storey 700 sq ft villa. Given the land supply shortage and the backlog of applications, the policy can hardly be sustained.

Village houses are often seen as synonymous with lawlessness. Their existence is not just a testimony to privilege and inequality. Problems like the proliferation of illegal structures and the lack of environmental planning in these houses have long given the impression that they are operating outside the rule of law.

At least three lives were lost in two deadly blazes over the past three years. However reassuring the fire safety guidelines may sound, they are useless if they only exist on paper.