CONSTRUCTION groups are predicting a far reaching upheaval in the territory's building industry if the Government goes ahead with plans to make architects and engineers criminally liable for site accidents. They said staff shortages could worsen as many authorised persons - architects and engineers qualified to sign building plans - refuse to accept the regulations and get Government jobs. They also predict a rise in the number of 'cowboy' professionals who will charge fat fees for signing building plans but know little about a project. 'We see that the bill, far from improving safety standards, will actually lessen them because there will be fewer people working as authorised persons,' said Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) president Edmund Leung Kwong-ho. Many consultants are unable to recruit properly qualified and experienced engineers and architects, despite widespread advertising. 'If the bill is passed we suspect many qualified people will move across into the public sector,' said HKIE structural division chairman Wong Chi-ming. Mr Wong said the only option was to pass on increased costs from the dramatic rise in salaries and allowances to developers. The Real Estate Developers' Association of Hong Kong agreed and believed it would lead to a surge in the number of professionals signing plans without any prior project knowledge. 'It will be a return to the bad old days,' said REDA general secretary Wai Sui-yu. He said architects were already running scared of the new regulations even before they had reached the statute book. 'Several well-known architects have completed the designs but refuse to sign them as APs [authorised persons],' he said. Both organisations are united in their opposition to tough proposals contained in the Buildings (Amendment) Bill number 3 making authorised persons liable in fatal accidents. Under the ordinance, which is being considered by a Legislative Council bills committee, APs face a maximum $250,000 fine or three years in jail if found negligent. HKIE president-to-be Barry Stubbings said the bill was a knee-jerk reaction by the Buildings Department to a string of fatal accidents, including last year's Nathan Road demolition site tragedy when six pedestrians were killed by falling concrete. 'We don't think it is a particularly well thought out reaction. We have asked the Buildings Department to delay it until the outcome (of the recent accidents) has been decided by the civil courts,' he said. The groups believe it is unrealistic for authorised persons to be held responsible for site accidents 24 hours a day, especially when architects and engineers may not visit a site more than two or three times a week. Mr Wai said the bill contains a provision for criminal action if workers deviate from the approved supervision plan. 'There are deviations from the established work pattern all the time, but it will be the AP, not the worker, who will be responsible for those deviations even though the AP has no control,' he said. They are also concerned the regulations usurp the traditional role of contractors to accept responsibility for construction site safety and fly in the face of proposals by Works Branch. These encourage contractors, subcontractors and workers to take better care by incentive schemes rather than the kind of draconian regulatory action proposed by the Buildings Department.