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Hong Kong housing

Landowners built illegal private garden in Hong Kong – and for 20 years the government did nothing

Watchdog slams ‘appalling delay’ but authorities point out there are 200,000 reports to handle per year

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 September, 2017, 5:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 September, 2017, 10:20pm

The Lands Department contributed to “appalling and unacceptable” delays in a case that stretched more than 20 years over illegal use of public land by landowners in the New Territories, Hong Kong’s Ombudsman said on Tuesday.

For more than two decades, an illegally built “private garden” complex and village house was expanded. Land officials were aware of this but had failed to act until 2014, the watchdog found.

The saga began in 1995 with a New Territories Exempted House which had exceeded height restrictions with additional structures, and also encroached on government land. The exact location of the case was not disclosed.

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The house and private agricultural land it was built on was also immediately sold, despite conditions stipulating self-use.

“As the largest landholder and manager in Hong Kong, the enforcement delay is ... appalling and unacceptable,” Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said, adding that the details uncovered might just be “the tip of the iceberg”.

They abetted the owner to continue building and take up large swathes of government land
Connie Lau, Ombudsman

Between 1995 and 1996, the District Lands Office’s demands for rectification of the site were ignored.

Nine inspections were carried out between 1996 and 2003 and it wasn’t until 1999 that officials learned the land had been sold. In 2002, authorities found out that half the house was built on public land.

By 2005, the property had switched hands three times. The house itself was now two metres above regulation height, affixed with an illegal balcony and canopies, two illegally constructed porches, as well as a gated perimeter wall.

The complex spanned a total area of 316 square metres, but a third of it was on government land. The original allowance for the house in 1994 was just 37 square metres.

“They should have immediately rescinded the waiver for the village house in 1995,” Lau said. “By not doing so, they abetted the owner to continue building and take up large swathes of government land as their own and for a private garden.”

In 2007, the case was handed to a “New Territories Action Team” for processing – but the watchdog noted that nothing was done between then and 2014, the year enforcement finally commenced.

A flurry of warning letters to remove structures and vacate government land continued from 2015 to 2016.

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In 2016 and this year, the owner was prosecuted and convicted on both occasions. He was fined HK$70,000 in August.

Lau pointed out that most of the irregularities were a result of the previous two owners, who had escaped responsibility because of the delays.

A Lands Department spokesman attributed the delays to its system of prioritising “straightforward cases first, and thorny cases last” if they did not threaten public safety.

Lau said such a strategy would only cause the team to sit on cases rather than handle them.

The department said it recognised there was room for improvement, adding that it had revised its principle. It also accepted the Ombudsman’s recommendation of setting target completion dates for each case.

People in the New Territories look at enforcement notices as pieces of scrap paper
Lee Wing-tat, former lawmaker

It stressed however that there were more than 200,000 land-related complaints each year.

The action group has been processing a backlog of 7,746 cases since it was formed in 2007, and completed 5,531 cases.

In the “private garden” case, the structures are still standing on the site. The department said it was seeking legal advice to proceed with taking back the lot.

Former lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, who heads the land and housing policy think tank Land Watch, said this was an age-old problem that had surfaced several times, but he noted the particular case in question was one of the longest he had heard of.

“The whole Lands Department system does not work. People in the New Territories look at enforcement notices as pieces of scrap paper,” he said.

He urged the department to set up a task force made up of lawmakers, professionals and officials to monitor all cases that last longer than two years, and report progress to the Legislative Council.

“What they need is a system of external checks,” Lee said.