No one can deny that Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is a highly capable and responsible person and a respected government official. As an office holder, she is facing up to the sensitive issues of subdivided flats and village houses in the New Territories.
Unfortunately, she has not been decisive enough in cracking down on unauthorised building works across the city, prompting criticism that she can talk the talk but can't always walk the walk.
Her good intentions of applying flexibility in handling unauthorised works in rural areas have surprisingly backfired; thousands of villagers staged a noisy protest outside the Legislative Council recently as lawmakers discussed the government's plans to demolish unauthorised structures.
The government should be fair in implementing all policies. It's obvious that this has not been the case and many still believe villagers have special privileges and have been given more leeway over the issue. We seem to have 'one city, two systems'.
Nobody should be given favourable treatment because of where they come from. If the government uses different sets of rules and different time frames to resolve the issue, the public will understand and support it. But if different treatment is given because of other considerations, it should not be allowed.
Unauthorised structures that do not pose immediate danger, whether they are located in the city or rural areas, can be dealt with later. The existence of encumbrance, which affects the transferability and limits the free use of a property, has not been effective in forcing owners to remove these works. A more useful deterrent is for the government to direct banks, through the Monetary Authority, not to provide mortgages for properties with unauthorised structures. It should force owners to remove them before completing a property sale.
For properties under an encumbrance order, the government should issue a three- to five-year waiver but charge a 'tolerance fee' for any delay in removing unauthorised works. These penalties should be doubled yearly until the illegal structure is removed.
Under the current system, the government acts on complaints to take action against unauthorised works. This encourages neighbours to lodge complaints against one another, causing conflict and polarisation in communities.
If the government charges a tolerance fee according to the value of the property, then we are talking about billions of dollars per year, just in penalties alone. The money could be used to set up a fund to provide financial assistance to property owners to remove unauthorised structures.
The surplus of the fund can also help support urban redevelopment, and improve the living conditions of people who live in subdivided flats.
To get to the root of the problem of unauthorised works, the government must follow three principles - treat all offenders equally, follow the law to the letter, and apply clearance measures step by step with no deviation from the original plan. We should support Lam in eradicating the problem for the sake of public safety and social harmony, and help the government avert a huge political problem.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org