The price of appeasement

There are some lessons that seem to pass down smoothly from one generation to the next so that descendants can benefit from their ancestors' experience gleaned the hard way.

And then there are the lessons that every generation ought to be aware of, but seems to need to learn again the hard way for itself.

One such lesson is that there is always a price to be paid for appeasement, and the longer you defer the evil day of calling a halt to illegality - whether big or small - the higher that price will be.

Britain learned this the hard way when it thought it could buy off Hitler in the 1930s by giving up chunks of other European countries to him, but found that each concession just increased his appetite. Eventually World War 2 had to be fought and millions of lives were lost.

Post war Britain realised that trade union power had to be curtailed because it was bringing the country to its economic knees, but had to wait a long time for the election of the Thatcher government with the courage to put its foot down. The result was the year-long miners' strike which caused much economic damage and left the communities concerned with a legacy of bitterness.

America is now learning the lesson as the profligate retirement packages granted to public servants in previous years start to bankrupt towns, cities and even (prospectively) some states as the bill becomes due.

Now Hong Kong is learning the same lesson with respect to unauthorized building works. The problem exists throughout the SAR but is most serious in the New Territories because the appeasement of villagers has been standard government practice for decades.

Anyone doubting this needs only look at the evolution of the small house policy: what began as a concession allowing country folk who worked the land to build a two storey house on their own land within the village environs to improve their living environment has been transformed in to a "right" to build a three storey house, on public land if necessary, and if the village isn't big enough, the government will enlarge it. The result is a plethora of Spanish villas with nary a villager in sight.

The problem is probably less serious, but no less rife, in the urban area and thousands of ordinary citizens are technically guilty of minor transgressions, including as it turns out several ministers.

Most unlucky was our Chief Executive Donald Tsang who did at least promptly remove some unauthorised additions when told to do so by the Buildings Department a few years back. Unfortunately as part of the response to the recent political storm he had lectured his cabinet on the need to make doubly sure everything was in order by appointing an authorized professional to check, only to ignore his own good advice.

The most blatant case involved that old warhorse Michael Suen who as minister responsible for cracking down on such works ignored his own department's legal notice on the subject in respect of his own home. Apart from commending the staff concerned for issuing the notice to their own boss, impartial observers must wonder exactly what a minister in this government would need to do to get fired. The apocryphal indecent assault on the Chief Executive's wife in broad daylight on the front lawn of Government House?

There is a way of bringing this problem under control and it can be applied equally across the board in both urban and rural areas. But it will be painful.

The government should introduce a law requiring that every property transaction submitted to the Land Office for registration of change of ownership must be accompanied by a certificate signed by an authorized person confirming that the property in question complies fully with all relevant legislation, in particular the Buildings Ordinance, and the lease conditions. Only transfers of ownership so accompanied will be recognized.

There could also be a grace period (say three or five years) during which owners could engage authorized persons to seek retrospective approval for very minor works which posed no danger, upon payment of a penalty.

Any works which present a danger, or which have not obtained retrospective approval during the grace period, would be subject to enforcement action.

A package along these lines should be capable of bringing the problem under control. But anyone who thinks it will be an easy sell need only look at the photograph of a Yuen Long village elder which recently graced many newspapers. With a straight, defiant, face he demanded compensation if he were obliged to obey the law in this area. No doubt at least one member of the Executive Council agrees with him.

So there will be a heavy political price to pay, but such is the inevitable outcome of a long period of appeasement. And the longer we wait, the higher the price will be.