My Take

The pitfalls of ‘regularising’ illegal occupation of government land

Lands chief Bernadette Linn rejects public criticism of her department but she’s simply dug herself into a bigger hole

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 1:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 1:10am

Director of Lands Bernadette Linn Hon-ho was engaged in a bit of damage control at the weekend but ended up digging a bigger hole for herself. She defended her department after the Ombudsman’s scathing criticism about exploited loopholes and lax enforcement over illegally occupied government land, especially in the New Territories.

Getting on her high horse, Linn said she felt hurt by the misunderstanding and that society needed a public discussion on whether to continue the practice, called “regularisation”, of granting leases – and charging rents – to those who have been found to have illegally occupied government land.

“Should we go along the route of rejecting all [lease] applications as a matter of course? And only fence up whatever area has been unlawfully occupied, and just leaving it there idle?” she asked. “I think this is a matter of choice for the public to debate on, and for the public to indicate their preference.”

Her department approves “regularisation” in 40 per cent of such cases.

No one would seriously fault regularisation if it had been properly administrated, and the Ombudsman would not have issued its scathing report. Then again, if the department is so keen on generating rent revenue, why doesn’t it actively lease out idle public land instead of waiting for illegal occupants to take them up first? And how about a heavy fine on top of the “regularised” rent?

Amid revelations almost one in three illegal land occupants are granted leases, top official admits ‘lot of room for improvement’

The real problem is, pardon the pun, the irregularities in the administration of regularisation. The department often tolerates, ignores or just doesn’t know – through inadequate inspection – many instances of illegal occupation that could go on for years.

The Ombudsman cited one case where a cafe operated illegally in the public area of a village for almost two decades despite repeated complaints from some villagers.

Its main criticism targets the department’s “failure to detect longstanding breaches, and for its recurring delays in taking enforcement actions”.

Regularisation is supposed to take no more than 24 weeks. But the usual time turns out to be between 13 and 19 months, with one case lasting almost four years. During the wait, the Ombudsman said no rent was paid.

Linn said the department had clawed back past rental payments – by backdating to the period of the illegal occupation. I would love to see how many times that actually happened.