Give officials more power to crack down on illegal structures in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 9:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 9:46pm

The contentious issue of unauthorised building works (UBWs) appeared to have gone on a back burner until the latest revelations regarding illegal structures at the luxury home of the new Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah. It is important to raise awareness about UBWs as some of them are dangerous and pose a risk to the public.

A few years ago, when some unauthorised structures fell and injured people, there were calls for a crackdown. A series of inspections revealed a surprisingly high number of UBWs in urban and rural areas.

The Buildings Department pledged to deal with the problem. But officials soon discovered how difficult it would be to enforce the law across the board.

The department has to establish ownership of the property before any demolition of a UBW can take place. Its construction might go back decades and to earlier owners of the property who are no longer there and difficult to track down.

Ownership issues can be complicated especially in villages in the New Territories. A rooftop UBW can cause complications if it is in a common area and has no specific owner. All these problems slow down the process of removing illegal structures.

The complexity of the problem is compounded in the New Territories by the small-house policy and New Territories Exempted Houses (NTEH) which are not covered by some provisions in the Buildings Ordinance. Villagers have taken advantage of NTEH status to make additions to homes, including storeys, and some of these are dangerous.

Finally, law enforcement can be very difficult, for example, in luxury housing where a basement has been built in secret and therefore no application was made. Officers from the relevant department might need a warrant to examine the premises if they suspect a UBW, but it can be difficult to get the evidence they need to obtain the warrant.

For all these reasons, many homeowners simply ignore the regulations and build their UBWs without seeking permission and without regard to public safety.

Regulations should be amended to give government departments greater powers and tougher punishment for people who break the law by building these UBWs. Heavier fines and sentences can act as a deterrent.

Also, the government must ensure that residents who are threatened with being made homeless because a UBW is about to be demolished will be found alternative housing.

Ivy Cheung, Chai Wan