Amid revelations almost one in three illegal land occupants are granted leases, top official admits ‘lot of room for improvement’

Top government official defends department staff after scathing Ombudsman report

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 1:25pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 11:21pm

The Lands Department’s top official on Saturday called for public discussion on whether to continue granting leases for illegally occupied government land, after a scathing Ombudsman’s report exposed loopholes and lax enforcement that have enabled decades of abuse.

Director of Lands Bernadette Linn, speaking for the first time since the report’s release on Tuesday, asked society to debate whether it was appropriate to reject all tenancy applications and leave such sites idle.

“We cannot possibly make use of a site in front of a private house for public open space if it is not zoned for that purpose. Nor can we make use of the small parcels of land in between the private land here in Wang Chau for public open space when that area is currently being zoned for open storage,” she said.

“So should we just want to leave it idle and for people to just fence it up, or do we lend it out for a proper use which is permitted under the zoning?”

Linn also recognised a need to review how the department prioritises enforcement against illegal occupation of government land.

“There is a lot of room for improvement for the department,” she said. “The order of cases to be handled could be [arranged] more smartly.”

The Ombudsman’s report identified inadequacies in how the department dealt with illegal occupation of public land and breached leases.

The report said the department “has all along allowed illegal occupiers of government land … to apply for regularisation of such irregularities”.

Rural land use has been a particular headache for the Hong Kong government with the Basic Law granting preferential provisions for indigenous villagers in the New Territories to enjoy special land rights.

According to Linn, the department approved almost one in three applications to convert illegally acquired government land into legal short-term leases.

Linn said “over 60 per cent of applications” were rejected. Those that were approved were based on “specific conditions”, which included the location and rent, she added.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing made five recommendations to the department, including the need to conduct proactive inspections randomly to weed out illegal ­occupiers and identify breaches of lease conditions.

Linn defended her staff at the Lands Department during Saturday’s radio interview.

“Lands Department officers do not just sit idly when there are illegal acts,” she said.

The watchdog’s report came as two newly elected lawmakers held a high-profile meeting with two ministers, asking questions about a development plan in Yuen Long which involved 1.2 hectares of government land leased to illegal occupants.

The Yuen Long project caught public attention when it emerged that lawmaker-elect and social activist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick had received death threats over his revelation of a land dispute involving the Wang Chau site, which was ­initially earmarked for public housing, but eventually ­abandoned in the face of opposition from rural leaders.