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Hong Kong housing

Drones hunt illegal use of public land in Hong Kong as officials criticised

Lands Department reveals 16 remote-controlled pilotless aircraft are being used in a one-year trial at select sites known for unauthorised activities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 11:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 11:30am

The illegal use of public land and extension of squatter homes in Hong Kong are being monitored with drones in a new project after officials drew criticism for failing to inspect unauthorised activities.

The Lands Department revealed 16 drones had been deployed in a one-year trial project at a few select sites where illegal occupations on government land were commonly found or where squatter homes were known to exceed height restrictions.

“It’s not just about increasing the frequency of inspections, but also trying to be smarter to see if we can use [this technology] to target any suspected cases,” the department’s Director of Lands Thomas Chan Chung-ching said on Friday.

The department said it aimed to review progress in the project, which launched in July, by next July to determine whether it could help monitor unlawful occupations to ease the burden of officials conducting field inspections.

Deputy director in survey and mapping Paul Ng Kwok-wai claimed it was not the first time the department had used aerial photos to track illegal encroachments.

“In 2013 we already started using aerial photos for a case of a breach in land lease. By comparing the photos taken at separate times, we were able to track the changes and it was eventually used in court as evidence in trial,” he said.

We were able to track the changes and it was eventually used in court as evidence
Paul Ng Kwok-wai, Lands Department

Ng added the department would be able to determine whether structures had exceeded height restrictions or encroached onto government land.

It did not reveal the site locations or how often aerial photos would be taken.

For years, authorities have struggled to deal with an overwhelming backlog of cases related to land lease violations as well as illegal occupations of vacant public land.

Owners of private land or brownfield sites in the New Territories often extend the operations of their car parks and container storages into neighbouring public land, while a lack of manpower to handle such cases meant they were allowed to exist or went undetected.

Hong Kong’s Ombudsman revealed last week that the Lands Department had allowed a case of an illegally built private garden complex and expanded village house in the New Territories to go on for two decades before it took action in 2014.

Chan said authorities faced a heavy workload, with over 240,000 land-related complaints last year.

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Of those complaints, some 18,000 concerned the illegal occupation of vacant public land.

“We have 600 people to cover both land and squatter control problems in the department,” the director explained. “The workload is considerably large to cover the whole of Hong Kong.”

Chan said an internal review was being carried out to see if any additional manpower or a reallocation of resources was needed to address the issue.

A “New Territories Action Team” in charge of processing the backlog estimated it would be able to finish the remaining 2,000 cases out of its 7,746 total in the next two to three years.