Red Faces

Typhoon Saola which swept through Hong Kong earlier this month, required hoisting of the number 10 storm signal for the first time in many years. It was followed soon after by a brief period of exceptional weather including very heavy rain. The two together revealed drainage problems in some areas and also a new dimension of the unauthorised building works issue.

Three luxury houses in the Redhill Peninsula were shown to have illegal structures, at least one of which resulted in a landslip hence creating a risk to public safety. In response, Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn Hon-ho said the government would launch a crackdown which would not be limited to that particular location but would include detached houses in other areas. Those on slopes in particular would be targeted.

Linn hoped the action would demonstrate to the community a determination to enforce the law.

The statement would have been more reassuring had it not come just a few weeks after disturbing reports about the safety situation with respect to older buildings in the urban area. A spate of incidents of concrete falling off high rises and causing injury and damage to persons and vehicles below, including two in three days from the same building in Mongkok, had shone the spotlight on this issue. The building concerned had been served with a statutory inspection order in 2014 but nine years later this had yet to result in any remedial works. Moreover the concrete that had fallen came from new unauthorised works in progress. Of some 7,000 buildings served with such orders, in 4,000 cases the inspections had yet to be completed. Of 1,100 grants advanced by the Urban Renewal Authority for improvements to be carried out, works had been completed in only 110.

Meanwhile, an NGO Liber Research Community said it had identified 173 luxury homes illegally occupying government land.

The whole question of timely follow up action is clearly a challenge of its own. By chance, investigation shows that one of the owners in the Redhill case is also owner of a Tuen Mun property which was subject of court action in August 2019 for ignoring removal orders issued in 2017. But the illegal structures are still there in 2023. Clearly the fine of $24,900 first time was not a sufficient deterrent. Hardly surprising: it is less than one night’s asking rent quoted on Airbnb.

The question arises as to which parties should be subject of enforcement action. Most of the emphasis up to now has been on the property owners and that is surely correct. But is it sufficient? Linn specifically mentioned authorised persons and those who conducted property transactions (presumably agents and solicitors). To that list I would add registered contractors.

Some of the works at issue here are very extensive. Anything touching on retaining walls as at Redhill, or involving substantial excavation for example. We all remember the case of Henry Tang’s extensive basement. Works on this scale are way beyond the competence of the local handyman with his toolbox. They require temporary shoring up works during construction and a fleet of vehicles to remove excavated soil. However informally, detailed plans must have been drawn up by a qualified professional and then implemented by an experienced contractor. One gets the feeling such persons up to now have largely been let off the hook. It is good that Linn proposes to include them in the net in future.