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Teresa Cheng

Government must get a grip on illegal structures

There have been countless complaints against unauthorised alterations to buildings over the years, yet it is only when the rich and powerful are caught out that the authorities spring into action – for a short time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 12:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 12:52am

Nearly four weeks into her new role, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah is still struggling to put behind her the scandal surrounding illegal structures at her properties. Thanks to extensive media coverage and growing public pressure, the irregularities found at her luxurious properties are being rectified with a sense of urgency. But for decades, the problem of countless unauthorised structures across the city has been left unresolved;and there appears to be no effective way to tackle the issue. This does not square with our claim of being a city firmly built on the rule of law.

The prevalence of illegal fixtures is no secret to anyone familiar with the Hong Kong cityscape. While people do get hot under the collar whenever the rich and famous are found to have flouted the rules, everyone turns a blind eye to the problem until fatal tragedies have happened. But the attention soon fades until the problem makes headlines again.

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The Buildings Department has a monumental task ahead. Over the past 18 years, it has been flooded with 520,000 complaints about unauthorised structures –,29,000 coming last year alone. Hundreds of thousands of letters and warnings have been issued. And when prosecutions followed (40,000 out of 388,000 orders of compliance issued), only 70 per cent resulted in conviction. The process often takes months, if not years, to complete.

Some say the government has only itself to blame for its restrictive regime, which basically outlaws any alterations without authorisation. This is not helped by a tedious approval mechanism, so much so that few would have the incentive to follow the rules. Unless the properties have been officially banned from resale because of non-compliance, sellers can free themselves from liability by requiring buyers to sign a consent acknowledging their awareness of the illegal structures. That explains why so many people take the gamble in return for more space and comfort.

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The city’s maladministration watchdog has at least twice hit out at the government, the last targeting slack enforcement against illegal structures in village houses in the New Territories seven years ago. In response, former development minister Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, now the chief executive, led a high-profile crackdown which, regrettably, remains unfinished today.

The problem would not have come under the spotlight again had it not been for another scandal involving the rich and powerful. We trust the justice minister’s conundrum has given Lam and her team fresh impetus to resolve the problem with more resolute measures.