Shopkeepers who extend their business onto the pavement or the street could be hit with a HK$1,500 on-the-spot fine, the government suggested in a consultation paper yesterday.
The Home Affairs Department says the present system, under which the government has to drag shop owners through the courts to levy fines averaging less than HK$600, is too weak to keep the city's crowded streets clear of clutter.
"Shopfront extension has become an old, big and difficult problem for us," said Raymond Young Lap-moon, permanent secretary for home affairs, as he launched a four-month consultation yesterday. "There are too many people and there is too little land in Hong Kong. The rents are high and business competition is acute. We don't hope to solve the problem permanently, but we hope to enforce our measures more effectively."
Young cited boxes of baby formula, diapers and tissue paper piled outside pharmacies, illegal alfresco dining areas at restaurants, wet market stalls that spill outside and construction companies that extend their business onto the pavement as the main targets for the proposal.
But he raised the possibility that, in areas where streetside shopping boosted "local character", rules could be relaxed.
According to the proposal, shop owners, licensees or managers would be hit with a fixed penalty, which could be issued by officers from several government departments, if they were caught red-handed putting goods outside their store.
The penalties could also be issued based on "circumstantial" evidence: that might include the fact products similar to those sold in the shop were placed outside for a set period, or if products outside carried labels or price tags from a shop.
Young said local communities or district councils might be able to identify areas where the rules were relaxed, and cited Mong Kok's flower market as an area where the government would not intervene, as long as there was agreement between businesses and the community.
"If we enforce the rules too strictly, the local economy would lose its vitality," he said.
Young said taking a shop owner to court took a long time - typically four months - and that the average fine of HK$595 was too small to dissuade owners from reoffending as it was far less than they would pay in rent for the equivalent amount of space.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said the government could set the fine even higher to better deter offenders, and that if business owners offended repeatedly, the government should require them to close their shops.
"If penalties are set too low, some business owners would just take fines as part of the recurring costs," Wong said.
The consultation runs until July 14.