Two months ago I was served with a statutory notice by the Buildings Department about the security door at the rear entrance to my apartment. This was something of a surprise as at no time in the quarter century since I bought the flat has there been any modification to that door. Nonetheless since someone had gone to the trouble of issuing a statutory notice including the usual range of dire threats (huge fines, long prison sentences etc) I thought it best to go and look.
The problem with the door was immediately obvious: it was one of the old-fashioned outward opening ones, presumably installed decades ago by a previous owner, which might be hazardous in the event of fire because opening it would block the small rear lobby. The door was illegal and would have to go. A quick call to the contractor, the old door removed, a new safe style one ordered and installed, and a progress report filed with the Buildings Department. All within six weeks. So, all well and good with just a lingering doubt in one’s own mind about how lucky we all were to have survived so many years in a potentially dangerous situation.
It seems that not all citizens are as scrupulous and prompt in dealing with such matters. Earlier this month, concrete fell from a Mongkok building twice within three days, causing injury to persons in a parked vehicle on the first occasion and road blockage on the second. There have since been other cases involving other buildings. In the days that followed, media reports gradually revealed an alarming situation. First, the authority had issued a mandatory inspection order for the building in 2014. Eventually an authorized person was appointed to carry out a survey and draw up a report on the remedial works that needed to be carried out. Efforts were in hand to tender out the works but no contractor had yet been appointed. So, nine years after the situation was deemed serious enough for an inspection order to be issued, no repair works had actually been done or illegal structures removed.
And that may not be the worst of it: it transpired that the falling concrete had come from a new canopy, also unauthorized, that was under construction. In other words, the report on what works need to be done is already out of date. Will that require another survey and a new tender exercise involving further delay?
Stepping back from the individual case and looking from a wider perspective, we can see just how big the problem is. Some 7,000 buildings have been subject to a mandatory inspection order, but 4,000 have yet to complete it.
There is a subsidy scheme to help less well-off residents of old buildings pay for the cost of repairs. The Urban Renewal Authority, which administers the scheme, recently revealed that of the more than 1,100 applications it had approved, only 110 had completed the works as at January this year.
This is a multi-faceted problem, and perforce it needs a multi-faceted solution. The first part must be public education, explaining to people why they need to take care of their own property. For some, buying a flat is “one and done”. But life is not like that. To maintain your property as a real asset you must keep it in good condition, which costs money. Since so many apartment buildings are in multiple ownership, that means an Incorporated Owners Association that functions well. Ensuring that there is such an organization and that it is up to the task is a job for the Home Affairs Bureau under Secretary Alice Mak Mei-Kuen. Judging from her comments in a radio interview last week, Mak is aware of the responsibility falling on her shoulders. This is an area requiring relentless effort in unglamourous work over a prolonged period. We should all wish her well.
But primary responsibility must rest with Director of Buildings Clarice Yu Po-mei and Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn Hon-ho. After all, we are talking about building safety and, indirectly, housing supply. There is no point throwing all our energies into building new homes at one point in the supply process if at the other end of the conveyor belt existing ones are falling off, and down. And it is in this aspect that I perceive the major danger. The situation with respect to unauthorized building works is simply out of control despite various efforts in the past to “draw a line”. Does anyone remember the previous CE’s suggestion, while in a more junior post, for New Territories residents to register all such works with the government? Whatever happened to that scheme? All I see now in the NT is three-storey houses with structures on the roof. We have seen a candidate for chief executive with an unlawful basement so large it torpedoed his campaign. And a Secretary for Justice with family properties which had such extensive alterations that overlooking them was not possible.
Nobody wants an administration so over-bearing that ordinary citizens responsible for non-dangerous minor peccadillos in their own homes feel afraid. But we have to find a way to distinguish between minor non dangerous works that can reasonably be tolerated, and alterations that pose a risk to others.
Linn might be better placed to do this if she focused more on the big picture and put less emphasis on destroying Hong Kong’s only world class sporting venue.