Suddenly a dripping pipe or a blocked drain - for so long blithely dismissed as a feature of Hong Kong life - is a menacing sight. Since the Sars tragedy at Amoy Gardens was linked to a faulty sewerage system, a profound new awareness towards public sanitation is sweeping the city. Hong Kong has long led the world in terms of the proportion of its population living in high-rise apartments, easily topping 90 per cent. It hardly leads the globe, however, when it comes to the health issues that surround that urban lifestyle. The hard work is only just beginning. Today this newspaper reports that the government is launching a drive to get ahead of the issue after years of half-measures and bureaucratic wrangling. Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Michael Suen Ming-yeung will be focusing on building management and maintenance. Firm consideration is being given to making owners' corporations and the appointment of a management agent compulsory - moves backed by a tough penalty regime against buildings which fail to enforce basic standards. Buildings will also be graded accordingly, something which may also provide a timely 'carrot' to force action, giving owners a clear rental incentive. Enforcement proposals are due to be put up for public discussion by the end of the year. Mr Suen's ideas are certainly ambitious. He has mentioned estimates of some 50,000 buildings falling under the government's spotlight - a figure far beyond the 10,000 or so buildings older than 30 years that currently attract most of the attention. If Mr Suen can get to grips with the problem, he will be achieving something that has eluded his predecessors for years. Decades of laisse-faire policies has placed extensive rights in the hands of individual property owners. This has meant entire apartment buildings and tenements where there is little if any communication or joint action between dozens - if not hundreds - of individual owners. Public areas - stairs, lobbies and light-wells - go untouched for years. No one takes responsibility for anything beyond the threshold of their own perch. Previous efforts to encourage owners to form corporations have struggled to make an impact, with many landlords in poorer areas uninterested or unwilling to take on new responsibilities. These owners will represent the biggest challenges for Mr Suen and his team in the months ahead. A stroll through the poorer quarters of any of Hong Kong's older areas such as To Kwa Wan or Kwun Tong will provide ample evidence of the tough task, given the dripping alleys and cluttered stairs. Early signs suggest Mr Suen is less than keen to include direct funding as part of his scheme, beyond expanding government loan assistance for building up-grading. He is right to do so. The drive for improvement must come from the building owners themselves. There may be extreme cases, however, where the owners come together to decide that a building would be better destroyed or completely renovated rather than brought up to new legal standards. In such cases the government, through the Urban Renewal Authority, should be ready to be flexible in terms of relocation assistance. It must be remembered these are private buildings in disrepair and that the law already provides for compensation to owners of buildings targeted for development by the authority. If it is successful, Mr Suen's plan will drag many of Hong Kong's slum areas into the 21st century. Just as great strides have been made in previous decades in clearing squatter camps, now new efforts are needed to lift standards in poorer and more congested apartment areas. Sars has shown that our lives depend on it.