52 columbarium operators stand accused of violations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 December, 2010, 12:00am

Fifty-two private columbarium operators - including the well-known Po Lin and Ten Thousand Buddhas monasteries - were yesterday accused by the government of violating planning rules and land leases.

A total of 31 operators with locations mainly in the New Territories lacked planning permission, and 23 had land leases that prohibited niches, the government said. Five also illegally occupied government land. Some operators had committed more than one offence.

Officials said publicly naming the operators was an effort to inform consumers about the unregulated market in niches, which are in short supply. They said they were taking enforcement action or talking with operators who were in violation.

The move drew swift reactions from operators. Ying Hing Monastery warned of taking legal action to clear its name from the list. The Hong Kong Columbarium Merchants Association and other individual operators are also considering legal action against the name-and-shame campaign.

'It is going to stir up more confusion, as even the government has a disclaimer that the information in the lists might be inaccurate,' said Lai Hau-yan, an association spokesman.

The government also issued a list of 29 private niche suppliers who complied with legal requirements. Most are run by religious groups and the Board of Management of Chinese Permanent Cemeteries. Officials yesterday refrained from asking the public not to buy niches from the 52 operators. Instead, they advised consumers to check with the operators on the terms of purchase, and if there were refund arrangements.

The lists were neither comprehensive nor exhaustive and were for the public to make their own assessment, a Development Bureau spokeswoman said. One omission is To Fuk Shan columbarium in Sha Tin. Early this year, the Lands Department warned the operator that its selling of urn niches might breach its land lease. The latest government action comes ahead of a proposed licensing system to regulate the private-niche sector.

About 50,000 people are cremated each year and there are almost no public niches available until 2012. The undersupply has fuelled speculation in niches, with some priced at more than HK$200,000.

Connie Lau Yin-hing, Consumer Council chief executive, yesterday welcomed the two lists but said consumers were telephoning to ask if some niches were legal or not. 'There is a high demand for urn niches. I hope the government will clarify the land lease problem as soon as possible,' she said.

Complaints to the council against funeral services rose from nine in 2008 to 31 last year, including 29 related to urn niches. In April, the council released a list of 13 'properly run' private columbariums for public reference. Three of these showed up on yesterday's list of 52 errant operators.

In Po Lin Monastery's Hoi Wui Ling Tap Crematorium and Columbarium, where an area of 517 square metres of land can be used for such purposes under short tenancy, the government found unauthorised occupation of adjoining government land for a columbarium.

A spokesman for the monastery in Ngong Ping said the site was only used as a columbarium for some senior monks and Buddhist followers.

'These niches are not for sale and there are only a few hundred niches available,' the spokesman said.

Tsing Shan Monastery in Castle Peak, Tuen Mun, said sales of niches stopped after the monastery received the notice from the government.