UBW crackdown looms as 2013 starts

Updated: 2013-01-03 06:53

By Timothy Chui(HK Edition)

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As the government officially opened for business on the first working day of the new year, thousands of property owners in the New Territories faced the threat of immediate enforcement action for their unreported unauthorized building works (UBWs).

A temporary amnesty under which owners could forestall prosecution by notifying authorities of illegal structures ended on December 31.

The Buildings Department (BD) will begin issuing tens of thousands of removal and demolition orders.If owners fail to comply, the government will proceed with the demolition work using government contractors, but property owners will be held responsible for the charges plus a surcharge.

Property owners on land, where offending structures are located, also are subject to criminal prosecution if they do not comply with orders. They face maximum fines of HK$200,000, plus HK$20,000 for each day their properties are not in compliance. Lending institutions holding mortgages on offending properties will also be notified.

UBWs have dogged the past two Chief Executives and became pivotal in the failed bid for the Chief Executive's post by Henry Tang Ying-yen. Official estimates show there are some 35,000 homes with illegal additions, according to the village administrative group - the Heung Yee Kuk. Law Society past-president and current Council Member Junius Ho Kwan-yiu believes, however, there could be as many as 200,000 illegal structures.

A June appeal for self-registration of UBWs drew 800 submissions by early September, the number climbing to 11,000 by mid-December.Self-registration exempted owners from immediate demolition orders, so long as the illegal structure did not pose any imminent threat and were inspected once every five years.

The BD, which has set up a dedicated team of 40 backed by HK$36 million a year in funding, has yet to release its final tally after the Dec 31 self-reporting deadline.

The issue's potential enforcement costs have created divisions on how to address the issue which has quietly proliferated in rural areas for decades.

In urban areas, some 800,000 UBWs have been identified for demolition since 2001, however, only half have been dealt with.

Kuk head Lau Wong-fat has been urging villagers to report their unauthorized works voluntarily. However the Law Society's Ho called for a registration boycott.

Ho argues the reports could be used against owners during enforcement actions, adding that owners may be unable to secure mortgages if they made such declarations.

The government has begun aggressively tackling UBWs such as subdivided flats in urban areas, as well as in rural areas covering appendages from external walls and fire hazards.

Only eight removal orders were carried out in the first 11 months of 2011, compared to 320 non-compliance to such orders. There were 145 and 159 for all of 2010 respectively.

The BD also prosecuted 186 cases in the first 11 months of 2011, securing 152 convictions, up from 129 and 77, respectively, for all of 2010.

Ho continues to call for a legal review, saying current laws are outdated, vague and too broad. He contends the "so called self-reporting amnesty" removes the individual right to refrain from self incrimination.

He said the scheme was flawed because it ran against the basic legal principle that one has the right to remain silent and not make self incriminating statements.

Ho doubted the government's current approach would be able to handle an enormous number of cases as well as the fallout from forced demolitions.

"We need an exit route for owners to give them the chance to put things right instead of just pulling down minor construction works. Give them a chance to make it legal."

He also called on the government to unify building codes for rural and urban areas, so that they are treated equally.


(HK Edition 01/03/2013 page1)