The government could significantly speed up the crackdown on illegal structures on village houses in the New Territories by cutting red tape and improving communications among departments, a person familiar with the situation said.
The government's admission on Monday that it would take more than a decade to clear dangerous illegal structures in rural areas has made it an object of ridicule and raised doubts about its determination to fight unlawful building. One reason given for the long delay is that the Buildings Department must first carry out an extensive survey of high-risk illegal structures in rural areas.
But that information has already been recorded by the Ratings and Valuation Department, which revises the rateable value and government rent of village houses every year.
Tanya Chan, a lawyer and Civic Party lawmaker, said: 'It is ridiculous to start from zero again when relevant data is already available.'
The government could save a lot of time and money if the Buildings Department tapped into the Ratings and Valuation Department's data bank, the source said. Instead, the Development Bureau - which overseas the Buildings Department - is to appoint a consultant to do the survey in the first quarter of next year.
That is only a few months before the outgoing government's tenure ends on June 30. So enforcement against these infringements would be left to the next administration. That would be a political embarrassment for the government and a victory for the powerful rural authority, Heung Yee Kuk, which has been egging on villagers to use delaying tactics against the government.
'The survey can be done more efficiently if the departments are willing to share data with each other,' lawmaker Lee Wing-tat of the Democratic Party said. 'At least that will give the Buildings Department a rough estimate of where the problems are.'
The survey is being commissioned to identify targets for review and the issuance of removal orders in the first stage of the crackdown, which covers additions in serious breach of the law and that pose a high risk to the safety of other buildings and people. These include houses with one or more additional storeys, enclosed rooftop structures and unauthorised projecting structures.
A spokeswoman for the Ratings and Valuation Department said it conducted a general revaluation of village houses every year. It kept records of additions and alterations to them and would pass the information to the Buildings Department or Development Bureau if asked.
The Buildings Department did not say if it would use the data.
A person involved in the government's valuation work said commissioning a new survey would be a waste of resources because the Ratings and Valuation Department sent assessors to inspect, measure and photograph hundreds of newly built village houses every year. The assessment also requires checking the ownership of houses.
The rateable value takes into account unlawful extensions such as greenhouses, enclosed balconies and metal canopies. By the time of an inspection - three to six months after a newly built home gets a certificate of completion - about one-third of houses inspected have already had illegal structures added.
A person familiar with the enforcement programme said if other departments accessed the valuation data of individual households, it might contravene the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.
But a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, Eric Cheung Tat-ming, sees an exemption: 'Information that can practically identify an individual is defined as personal data. But the government can ask for an exemption if the data is used to preclude unlawful conduct. In this case, adding illegal structures is obviously unlawful.'
A spokeswoman for the privacy commissioner said merely extracting an address from the valuation data would not violate the law because it would not identify a person.