Bill on private niches slated for lawmakers' scrutiny in second quarter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 4:54am

Proposed controls on private columbariums are to come before lawmakers for discussion in the second quarter amid an acute shortage of burial space, the health minister says.

The city is moving to tighten regulations on the fast-growing trade after the government singled out dozens of such facilities in 2012 for violating planning rules or land leases.

The issue suffered from patchy regulation as no single piece of legislation specifically targeted private columbariums, Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said yesterday.

Government departments could impose controls only in specific areas within their purview, such as fire or building safety, he said.

"By introducing more regulation, we hope to phase out premises that stand little chance of meeting the legal requirements [after the law comes into effect] while giving a grace period to those who would be legal after making slight adjustments," Ko said.

It is hoped that the Private Columbaria Bill, to be tabled to the Legislative Council after it was postponed from the end of last year, will help knock the trade into shape.

In January 2012, a Tuen Mun monastery was fined HK$13,200, for the second time in about 10 months, for failing to comply with a court order to remove from government land illegal structures housing several thousand niches. It was the maximum fine under the Land Ordinance.

Earlier last week, Ko said feasibility studies on potential sites to develop district-based columbariums had been completed for most of the 18 districts.

He said the government would continue to consult the respective district councils on individual projects this year.

Last year, the government conducted 617 inspections on private columbariums, down from 804 in 2012 and 907 in 2011.

It detected 47 cases of non-compliance, compared with 43 in 2012 and 30 in 2011.

Officers took 35 enforcement actions - in the form of warning letters, orders, enforcement notices or prosecution - compared with 59 in 2012 and 31 in 2011.

Ko advised people to consider greener and more sustainable ways of handling human remains, such as sea burials. The government would push for the "necessary change in mindset".

Last year, the ashes of 797 people were scattered at sea, up from 791 in 2012 and 661 in 2011. The remains of another 2,354 were scattered at gardens of remembrance, rising from 2,023 in 2012 and 1,648 in 2011.