Ombudsman investigates fire safety at village houses

Watchdog acts after emergency vehicles are blocked and fire equipment removed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 3:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 3:36am

The Ombudsman has launched an investigation into fire safety measures for small village houses in the New Territories, after it received complaints about emergency vehicles being blocked and fire prevention equipment being removed.

Connie Lau Yin-hing, who as Ombudsman takes up the public’s grievances about maladministration, said the matter warranted a closer look as it concerned residents’ safety.

In 2012, two boys, aged eight and nine, died in a blaze in a Pat Heung village house, in Yuen Long. Fire engines could not reach the home in time because the walls of neighbouring houses were blocking access for emergency vehicles.

In a statement yesterday, the Office of the Ombudsman said the government had been using administrative guidelines to regulate fire safety for small houses – three-storey  village homes built on 700 sq ft plots – which are exempted from buildings regulations on providing emergency vehicle access.

The Ombudsman said that the Lands Department, after consulting the Fire Services Department, can request such access be provided when it scrutinises an application to build a small village house.

If there is a practical problem in providing such access, the department can ask applicants to install fire prevention equipment instead, such as having sprinkler systems, fire detectors and hose reels in the house.

But the Ombudsman continued to receive complaints “from time to time” about  access being blocked, and lands officials were powerless to act in most cases as the blocked paths were on private land.

It also noted there had been media reports  of homeowners removing fire prevention equipment from their properties after obtaining certificates of compliance from the Lands Department.

Paul Zimmerman, of planning advocacy group Designing Hong Kong, welcomed the Ombudsman’s investigation.

“We urgently need to change small-house application approvals,” he said.

“Two-thirds of the land available for small houses is used up. Every new small house approved will be squeezed in among existing houses, taking away space available for emergency vehicle access.

“Every new house will further impact fire safety in villages. Every one of the 642 villages is starting to look like the former Kowloon walled city, with narrow corridors and chaotic layouts,” Zimmerman said.

The Ombudsman said the public were welcome to submit their views by June 9, before it produces a report with recommendations for the government.