Authorities should stop sale of illicit niches: Protesters

Updated: 2012-12-28 06:46

By Timothy Chui(HK Edition)

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Authorities should stop sale of illicit niches: Protesters

The Alliance for Concern over Columbarium Policy mounted a protest on Thursday after learning that the Fu Tai Estate's residents' association in conjunction with Puguangming Temple, which operates a private columbarium, offered senior citizens vegetarian lunch giveaways on Tuesday as they promoted sales of burial niches at the temple.

A small group of eight protesters gathered outside Tuen Mun's Fut Tai Estate, demanding the government open more public columbaria and take steps to deal with the proliferation of illegal, private burial sites.

The group also hit out at the practice of providing free lunches to attract the senior citizens.

Tse alleges the seniors who attended the lunch were given sales pitches for illegal burial niches at the temple. The future of the temple's columbarium remains uncertain, however.

"We've requested an immediate halt to the sale of niches. This kind of development destroys the environment and is basically an illegal development. It causes distress among neighbors and violates Town Planning Board regulations and land use rules. We need the government to shore up laws and set up a proper licensing regime," Tse said.

Repeated attempts to contact the temple and the residents association elicited no response.

As Hong Kong's population ages, there is an acute shortage of public burial plots, which has led to an explosion of private alternatives.

There are 32 approved private columbaria which are in compliance with land use rules, according to the Development Bureau. Another 85 private applicants who have filed application for land use changes are still under consideration, investigation, or public review.

Puguangming Temple falls under the second group of applications. The temple has been corresponding with the bureau since December, 2010, when it was found its columbaria activities were not allowed under the temple's land lease agreement.

Under law, the approval period may be protracted for five years before the government can forcibly retake the land.

The temple maintains its niche operations should be allowed and is preparing further submissions. The Development Bureau will update its list of columbaria, whether approved or illegal, at the end of the year.

The government wrapped up a public consultation into a licensing scheme for private columbaria in March this year, and is formulating further submissions before drafting licensing laws.

Following Tse's suggestion to close all of the city's unapproved private columbaria might be difficult, given high demand and a severe shortage of niche spaces.

Nearly 40,000 applications were filed for public columbaria niches last year, with 170,000 already allotted as of last year, according to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

The supply disparity has led to the proliferation of private columbaria, not all of which are perfectly above board.

The Planning Department has received 177 complaints involving 40 cases against private columbaria from 2009 to 2011.

(HK Edition 12/28/2012 page1)