Time Bombs Overhead
By Chan Siu Sin
There are about 800,000 illegal structures hanging on buildings in old built-up areas, according to the Buildings Department.
Most of the existing illegal structures have been erected on buildings in districts like Yau Tsim Mong, Sham Shui Po and Kowloon City.
According to Mr. Ma Ying Kit, the senior building surveyor of the Buildings Department, erecting illegal building structures to increase living space was common in the 70s.
Encouraged by those not being punished, more people established illegal structures, as a bet, he said.
He said that the number of illegal structures has been decreasing over the years with improvements in the living environment.
A Mr. Cheung, who requested that his first name be withheld, erected a flower rack outside the windows of his flat in Mong Kok.
He said, The flower rack will not collapse because it is tightly attached to the wall.
Nearby residents do the same thing. They even have metal cages, he added.
According to the Building Ordinance, any additions or alterations to a building, without prior approval of the Building Authority, are regarded as unauthorized building works.
Rooftop structures, canopies and metal cages are examples of unauthorized building works that are subject to demolition.
Mr. Cheung said, If the department asked us to demolish that, we would cooperate.
He refused to report to the Department about other neighbours who have erected illegal structures so as to keep a peaceful neighbourhood.
A Mr. Ho, who also declined to give his full name, is president of the Owners Corporation of the building in which Mr. Cheung lives. He refused to report cases of illegal structures on the building.
He explained that the complaint system causes arguments and disputes among neighbours.
He said that the Corporation would not force residents to demolish those structures, even if they had the power, because they thought that it was better to keep the issue in the closet.
Residents will not be sued even if they do not report illegal structures erected on their buildings.
Though they do not report cases to the Department, the Corporation has advised residents to clear up the structures.
However, he said that most of the residents have ignored their advice.
He said that the Department staff had inspected the building several times before, but they only received a request for maintenance afterwards.
Under the Policy of Enforcement, unauthorized building works are divided into two categories immediate, and prioritized enforcement.
Immediate enforcement means the Department must advise erectors to rectify the problem immediately.
A statutory order is served in the event of failure of rectification, and prosecution is launched against default cases.
Prioritized enforcement means the structures pose no obvious threats and thus actions will be taken in sequence.
Mr. Ip Shing Hing, vice-president of the Law Society, said constructing illegal structures might not breach the Deed of Mutual Covenant, but it contravenes government leases and the Buildings Ordinance.
According to the Ordinance, the maximum penalty for erecting unauthorized building works is a 2-year imprisonment and a fine of $10,000.
For continuing offences, a further fine of $5,000 per day may be charged.
When the illegal structures are categorized as dangerous, the Department sends advisory letters asking the owners to demolish them.
The process of checking the owners information at the Land Registry may take 1 to 2 months before a Statutory Order is sent out, and the time allowance for demolition takes another 2 months.
Mr. Ip Kwok Him, vice-president of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, criticized the inefficient action of the Department.
It has not put enough emphasis on demolition, and so the result is not fruitful, he said.
They should clear all illegal structures and not repeatedly use excuses of insufficient resources, Mr. Ip complained.
If they lack manpower, they should employ more people, he added.
Mr. Ma responded, We are doing our best within the available resources.
Mr. Leung Lai, District Board member, criticized the Department for its passivity and the outdated method of differentiating illegal structures.
If people want the demolition process to speed up, society has to put in more resources, he said.
People have to bear in mind that it is the responsibility of the residents to demolish illegal structures, he added. If they had not constructed the structures, there would be fewer problems.
We are not passive. We have taken a new step forward by actively choosing 300 buildings for inspection, he said.
The Department sent advisory letters and statutory letters to the owners in late October.
The Building Safety Inspection Scheme (Voluntary) and the Building Safety Improvement Loan Scheme were introduced between 1997 and 1998.
The Loan Scheme has a $5 billion fund, and the maximum loan for each unit of flat will not exceed $200,000.
More than 100 buildings have joined the Inspection Scheme and 14 of them successfully applied for loans.
About $1.3 million had been lent out as of October.
Mr. Ip Kwok Him suggested a centralized and compulsory scheme to require all owners to maintain their buildings, under the terms that the government should do preliminary building inspection first.
Mr. Leung called for a change of policy. The policy would require every household to hand in written proof to the Department stating whether their flats have illegal structures or not.
Erectors would then be given a certain period of time to demolish the structures.
Legal actions would be launched against those who misinformed the government or did not carry out demolition.
Mr. Leung and Mr. Ip said more civil education programmes on legal knowledge, rights and duties of citizens are needed.
A Building Management Resource Centre was established by the Home Affairs Bureau in Kowloon.
It provides information and advice on improving standards of management, safety and maintenance of buildings.
Two more centres will be set up by the end of 1999 and 2000.
According to the Buildings Department, without public cooperation, it will take the government 133 years if all the illicit building structures are to be cleared up.
But with each illegal structure removed, there might be another new illegal structure being set up.
Are you worried when you pass buildings with illegal structures?
"I worry a lot as I work in places where there are a lot of illegal structures nearby."