The publication of a list of graded heritage buildings this week has triggered a volley of criticism of the government's conservation policy. The spotlight has focused on privately owned buildings that are in a serious state of disrepair or put to dubious uses, or both. Critics blame the administration for failing to do anything to keep these buildings in good condition. In response, officials say there is nothing they can do as government policy is not to take over such properties. Now, the government is thinking about setting up a trust to preserve heritage buildings on a sustainable basis. Economic incentives may be provided to encourage owners of the properties to preserve them. These are certainly welcome proposals, but I wonder if they get to the root cause of the problem - failure to impose decent standards on building maintenance? A picture on the front of the South China Morning Post on Tuesday illustrates what is so wrong with Hong Kong's approach to building maintenance. Two luxury cars are parked in front of the Yau Ma Tei wholesale fruit market, a collection of one- or two-storey stone buildings from around 1910 that are ranked as a grade-three heritage site. The only hint of the distinctive architectural style of the buildings is plaques on the roofs bearing the faded names of fruit traders. With dangling wires, and illegal add-ons littering the roofs and windows, the forlorn state of the buildings is no reflection of the roaring business carried out there. One can only surmise, judging by the fancy cars, that the fruit traders are making handsome profits. However, they are not putting much, if any, of their earnings back into maintaining their properties. Authorities have also turned a blind eye to the illegal structures, commonly found throughout the city. Indeed, not far from the fruit market, Chinese-style tenement buildings in Shanghai Street - built about 80 years ago - are ranked as grade-one heritage sites. That is to say they are of 'outstanding merit' and 'every effort should be made to preserve [them] if possible'. Yet, the buildings are not only poorly maintained, parts of them are also being used as vice dens. While we lament the dilapidated state of our heritage buildings, the proper question to ask first is why so many of Hong Kong's buildings are so badly maintained. For example, walking along Shanghai Street, a thoroughfare teeming with life, one can hardly find a building free of illegal structures or one that is not in need of a good paint job. Most of the buildings are between 30 and 50 years old. They are structurally sound, but aesthetically horrifying for lack of regular maintenance. It is little wonder that the heritage buildings nestling in their midst emit no charm at all, except to discerning eyes that are able to see through the sleaze. After vacillating for years, the government has introduced a mandatory inspection scheme for old buildings and a programme for their timely maintenance. Progress has indeed been made, but the state of some of our heritage buildings shows there is still a long way to go before the problem is contained. Even as we are encouraged to think big about how better to preserve our heritage buildings, a modest step might actually yield faster results. A stringent campaign to remove illegal structures and require all owners to paint their outer walls every five years would probably work wonders in giving Hong Kong, including its heritage properties, a fresh look. It would generate thousands of jobs as well. C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy.