Fierce competition and high rents force shops to break the law
The battle for street space is acute in busy urban areas. On parts of Nathan Road, the pavements are empty early in the morning and there is plenty of space for pedestrians. However, by the time shops open, especially businesses such as pharmacies, their goods are put outside their premises. With a substantially reduced area of pavement for so many people to negotiate, pedestrians are often forced onto roads. This is very inconvenient and poses a hazard to the public.
It is a case of too many people and not enough flat land. Also, with cut-throat competition between businesses and high rents, many shopkeepers feel they have to extend their business beyond the registered premises. Unlike the big chains such as McDonald's, they have to find ways to deal with skyrocketing property prices.
While this is a problem that can never be completely solved, more can be done to curb it.
Many retailers are fined, but they continue with this practice. For example, Nathan Road is a busy area with a high pedestrian flow. Shop owners may be fined, but the amount they have to pay is much less than the income they can generate through displaying goods outside. This profit offsets the fines. Restaurants also take up these areas of public space. In congested areas with limited space, outdoor dining can lead to obstruction of streets and cause hygiene and noise problems. Some of the eateries do not have the necessary outdoor dining licence.
However, shop owners are on the horns of a dilemma. With property prices rising so steeply, extension of their businesses is the only way to compensate for the cost of rent rises.
The government could cut down on the time it takes for a restaurant to get an outdoor dining licence (where it will not cause an obstruction) so these businesses do not have to break the law. At present they have to wait so long to get permission (it can take over a year) that some restaurants don't bother applying.
Businesses that illegally extend onto the pavement should face higher fines, of no less than HK$1,500, and risk losing their licence to trade if they repeatedly violate the relevant ordinance.
It is important to try and strike a balance between allowing businesses to make a profit, but ensure the public's right of way. In areas where it is feasible, restaurants could be allowed to put out tables during weekends and public holidays.
I believe that with the right approach by officials, it will be possible to ensure our pavements are kept clear and clean in order to create a good impression for tourists.
Gabriella Cheng, Sha Tin