Criminal liability fears hit Hong Kong engineering sector after MTR construction scandal
Tightening of procedures for approving project redesigns in wake of rail giant fiasco could slow construction and deter professionals from taking on responsibility, experts say
Members of Hong Kong’s top engineering body have expressed fears that industry professionals could face criminal sanctions over revisions to project designs amid the fallout from a construction scandal at the city’s rail operator.
The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) on Wednesday convened a special meeting to discuss the risk of procedures being tightened and criminal liability being spelled out for engineers seeking government approval for alterations. Experts said such a tightening could hit the industry hard.
The deliberations by the institution’s governing council come in the wake of a shoddy work scandal at the MTR Corporation which has sent shock waves through the sector.
The body will decide on Friday whether to press the government to clarify procedures for revising project designs as well as the accompanying criminal liability. But some members have voiced concerns that such a change could slow the process significantly and deter engineers from requesting revisions.
“The Buildings Ordinance says that for minor changes we don’t have to submit the revised plans to the department, but there is a lack of a clear definition. This will be a disaster for the construction sector if we have to wait two to three months for every design change,” warned Peter Wong, a former HKIE president.
The debate is just one of the damaging ripple effects from a construction fiasco to hit the MTR Corp over substandard work on its HK$97.1 billion (US$12.37 billion) Sha Tin-Central link, the city’s most expensive railway project ever.
Disgraced former MTR projects director Philco Wong offers to resign as head of Hong Kong Institution of Engineers
The series of motions up for debate by the engineering body included whether to accept the resignation of its incumbent president Philco Wong Nai-keung, who offered to quit on Tuesday after being forced to leave the MTR Corp as projects director early this month.
Another motion asked whether the professional body should ask various government departments to clarify the legal responsibilities involved in any failure to submit revised design plans for construction work.
Peter Wong said some members were highly concerned about the legal implications of the MTR Corp’s misadventures, which have resulted in high-profile departures from the rail giant, including three general managers on the Sha Tin-Central link and early retirement for CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen.
Hong Kong’s government and the MTR Corp must strive to wipe out the public works blunders plaguing the city
Their exits came after the corporation submitted a false report to the government concealing key facts and unapproved changes in the design for diaphragm walls on a platform under construction at Hung Hom station – a project which was also plagued by the use of substandard steel bars and the disappearance of 2,000 couplers that connected those bars.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor called the failure to get Buildings Department approval for the redesign “unacceptable”. Police have even been called in to investigate.
“Some members became caught up in fear that if they fail to get approval from the Buildings Department for any revised designs, they may face criminal liability. There are some grey areas in the regulations,” Peter Wong said. “Some construction firms have even had difficulties hiring project managers.”
The institution had more than 34,000 members last year, with its council containing more than 40.
Wong said it was very common for engineers to change a design in the middle of the building process, after encountering the realities of the construction environment.
“Under the buildings law, once we submit the first design of a project to the Buildings Department with a notice of possible modifications in future, if the changes are minor the contractor does not need to submit the revised plan every time to the department,” he said.
The department would usually leave these changes to the “professional expertise” of the responsible engineer, who needed to ensure they conformed to safety standards, Wong added.
Only the final design for a construction project needed to be submitted to the department for approval, and failure to do so would result in denial of the relevant permits.
“But now with the MTR fiasco, we don’t know if we have to seek government approval for every change we make in the design. If this is the case, then it will take two to three months for every approval and, in fact, the Buildings Department doesn’t have the manpower to cope with this workload,” he said.
Wong added that if engineers or other authorised professionals who signed redesign plans needed to accept criminal liability, nobody would be willing to take on that burden.
On Philco Wong’s resignation, Peter Wong said the council would take into account the views of all members before making a decision.
A group of more than 100 engineers have signed a petition saying the public perception of the engineering profession is in jeopardy due to the MTR scandal, but Peter Wong said there were also members in support of Philco Wong.