Government refuses to reassess small-house policy despite fatal fire

Government rejects review of small-house policy after two boys died in their village home with fire engine blocked from reaching them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 4:07am

The government has rejected a call to reassess the small-house policy in the New Territories in light of the deaths of two children in a house fire last October when illegal structures blocked access for emergency services.

Paul Zimmerman of the NGO Designing Hong Kong and the dead children's father, Simon Watkiss, had asked for a review of the policy after the blaze. The government response came only this week - eight months after Zimmerman initially contacted officials.

Zimmerman, who is a Southern district councillor, said he was sickened by the deaths of brothers Elliot, eight, and Frankie, seven, in the fire, which he said could have been avoided if authorities had taken proper safety measures.

Fire engines could not reach the Watkiss' home because the walls of neighbouring houses encroached onto the road. Firefighters took about 20 minutes to reach the house, by which time the children had suffocated.

Watkiss is adamant that his sons, who were asleep when the blaze broke out, would have lived if emergency vehicles had gained proper access to the family's village home in Wing Hing Wai in Pat Heung.

He supported Zimmerman taking up the cause, and in a strongly worded letter the councillor challenged the government to re-evaluate the small-house policy. Zimmerman wrote that the deaths of the young boys, ongoing disturbances and pervasive unlawful occupation of government land in and around villages demonstrated that the administration of the policy should change urgently.

The Development Bureau makes it clear that, unlike high-rise and low-rise developments developed in groups, small houses are granted to indigenous villagers on a case-by-case basis.

The letter from Priscilla Yeung Hoi-yan, on behalf of Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, said that under the small-house policy, no right of way to small-house lots is guaranteed and there is no requirement governing vehicular access or parking.

"The villager concerned must make his own arrangements for acquiring such right-of-way, vehicular access and parking space," Yeung wrote.

"This is clearly reflected in the respective small-house grant document, which is a contract between the government, acting as the landlord, and the grantee/licensee and his successors."

It was a response that angered Zimmerman, who said it merely reinforced how established practices under the small- house policy led to chaotic and unsafe living environments.

"The villages are a repeat of the Kowloon Walled City," he wrote. "Yeung's response is a joke in the face of this madness. It is in the government's own hands to amend the administration to ensure villages are sustainable places for people to live."