Wild dogs, snakes and threats – all in a day’s work for Hong Kong officials tackling land use violations
Authorities have for years struggled to deal with overwhelming number of cases related to lease violations and illegal occupation of vacant public land
Poisonous snakes, verbal threats and packs of wild dogs – these are just some of the obstacles that frontline government officials have had to deal with when tackling cases of illegal occupation of public land and land lease violations in Hong Kong.
To step up enforcement, the Lands Department said it would set up a special duties task force, similar to the police’s crime squad, this year with additional manpower of 60 officials to target more serious violations.
The department highlighted one typical case of 17 illegal structures built on a plot of 9,800 square metres of private agricultural land in Kai Leng village in Fanling, which ran for seven years.
“Often it gets difficult when it involves large plots of land in rural, hidden areas, checking old records to see if they violate the leases and trying to track down different landlords,” Joe Lo Hok-wing, a senior land executive in the North District Lands Office, said.
In some cases, permitted structures such as those for storing farming equipment would be expanded and converted into subdivided flats, but in others, luxury villas and converted container homes were built – all of which are illegal on private agricultural land.
In the case highlighted by the department, two groups of owners leased out the 17 unauthorised structures to 27 households, including new immigrants, single-parent families and the elderly. Some were living in 100 sq ft rooms in shoddily built concrete houses, with corrugated roofing sheets.
“We spend a lot of time explaining to the occupants that it’s illegal, and there is a lot of back and forth liaising,” he said.
Tenants often get emotional and things can escalate while officials carry out their work, which is why they request that police be standing by during their clear-out operations.
“Frontline officers face a lot of resistance, especially from those who insist they are victims. We’ve been cornered by groups of villagers while trying to take down the structures, we’ve received threats, one of our staff was hospitalised after being bitten by a poisonous snake, and we’ve had to face a pack of wild dogs. We’ve had to deal with a lot of things,” Sunny Sum Chung-nam, a principal land executive with the Yuen Long District Lands Office, said.
While authorities say they cannot condone the behaviour, they also try to handle such cases with compassion.
Residents who have been forced out do not receive any compensation, but they will be referred to other government departments or be allowed to stay at temporary transit centres.
For years, the authorities have struggled to deal with an overwhelming number of cases related to land lease violations as well as illegal occupation of vacant public land, especially in the New Territories, where such incidents are rampant.
Over the past three years, the government received an average of about 15,900 new cases related to illegal occupation of public land annually. At the end of last year, 11,696 cases were still being processed.
Officials have also long been criticised for being unable to inspect unauthorised activities, while a lack of manpower to handle such cases also meant they dragged on for years.
The Ombudsman, the public sector watchdog, last year revealed that the Lands Department had allowed a case involving an illegally built private garden complex and expanded village house in the New Territories to drag on for two decades before it took action in 2014.
A special team, which in 2007 was put in charge of dealing with the backlog of serious cases, said it would be able to finish handling the remaining 2,000 cases in the next two to three years out of its 7,746 total.
The planned special duties task force would prioritise cases that involved large numbers of residents, and posed safety and hygiene risks.
“In the New Territories, which is so vast and rural, lots of people take advantage of the fact that we are short-staffed and occupy illegal land or build unauthorised structures. If we don’t solve this problem, it’ll continue to grow like a tumour,” Sum said.