The enforcement policy of hygiene authorities on illegal extensions of restaurants onto the streets is faulty and in need of an overhaul, the Ombudsman says.
"Many people like eating alfresco, but there are also many complaints about these places because of street obstruction, noise and hygiene problems," Alan Lai Nin said.
The watchdog, in an investigation, identified a list of problems in the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department's enforcement policy.
First, health inspectors, who work from 8.30am to 6pm, are often unable to take action because most restaurants move their tables and chairs onto the streets only at dinner time.
And even when an operator had its licence suspended or cancelled for operating outside its premises or blocking the streets, the "lenient" licensing system allowed it to apply for a new one regardless of whether it involved the same premises or restaurant name, said Maisy Ng Chu Mei-chu, the Ombudsman's senior investigation officer.
"Why are the restaurants not deterred? Because the penalties are nothing compared to their profits. They just see it as paying a rent," Lai said.
Fines for operating a restaurant outside its designated premises range between HK$2,000 and HK$3,000.
A mechanism is in place for restaurants to apply for alfresco operations, but the success rate is low. Last year, of 104 applications, only 17 were approved.
Thirteen were rejected and 68 withdrawn. Those operators must resolve residents' complaints before receiving approval.
The Ombudsman made a series of recommendations, including conducting focused raids on repeat offenders and amendments to the law to simplify the appeal mechanism against licence cancellation.
The department should also give district councils suggestions on suitable spots for alfresco dining to facilitate applications, the Ombudsman said.
A department spokesman said the number of related complaints decreased from 6,220 in 2011 to 4,950 last year, with Yuen Long district topping the list with 920 cases. More studies would be required on the Ombudsman's recommendations, he said.
Catering sector lawmaker Tommy Cheung Yu-yan said tightening the law would add to the already high costs of running a restaurant.
He suggested instead that the government grant conditional licences for alfresco dining and limit operating hours to reduce friction with residents.
Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Yeung Tsz-hei said alfresco dining was a characteristic of his area, and spots such as Temple Street were tourist magnets.
He said the government should strike a balance between law enforcement and respect for local character.