John Lee must act on Hong Kong’s rampant illegal development

Almost 22 years ago, I bought a three-storey village house in a clan village in a Sai Kung bay. It sat in the middle of a 2,500 sq ft patchwork-tiled garden and was surrounded by a pretty white picket fence. Surrounded by mountains and close to the water, it was a house I had always dreamed of owning and was light-years from the urban stereotype that most people think of as a Hong Kong home.

The seller told me he had, five years previously, applied to the Lands Department for a five-year short-term tenancy (STT) to tidy his legal right to “use” the garden but had so far received no reply. He suggested I reapply for one.

When I raised this with neighbours, I stirred alarm. Most said I was stupid to apply. After all, while the previous owner had lived there, no one from the government had ever challenged his right to use the garden. Why volunteer to pay what would at that time have been about HK$15,000 (US$1,900) a year?

Others had more self-interested motives. Many also had small gardens and had never bothered to apply for an STT. They feared my application would stir a hornets’ nest, and that as officials came to inspect my garden, they would notice all the other gardens and discover they were illegally occupied.

When I decided to do the right thing, a group of village clan members stormed the Sai Kung Lands office, urging them to refuse my application. They were concerned not just that officials would want to demand STTs for their own gardens; they regarded my garden area as village land and so I was not entitled to the “exclusive” access my STT would give me.

What illegal structures were found at Hong Kong luxury estate Redhill Peninsula?

It took another three years before the Lands Department replied, ignoring the village clan protests and saying they would grant me an STT. Meanwhile, no one else in the village had applied for an STT for their own gardens and, to this day, no one from the government has come to pester them. Most neighbours still regard me as a mug for applying.

Needless to say, like most “outsiders”, I maintain a delicate relationship with clan villagers, who bear long grudges. I say nothing about the widespread informal charging for cars parked on government land in the village, or about the prodigious evidence of illegal structures across the village. If the government can’t be bothered to keep watch over this routine illegality, why should I act as a village snitch?

The recent explosion of outrage over widespread illegal development – much of it on government land, in luxury housing developments such as Redhill in Tai Tam, Flamingo Garden in Clear Water Bay or Seaview Villas in Tai Po – has, for most of us, simply been a reminder of the massive extent of disdainful disregard for the law.

Older egregious illegal developments by businessman and former executive councillor Henry Tang Ying-yen and former justice minister Teresa Cheng already made it clear how pervasively government officials at the most senior level flagrantly ignore legal proscriptions on development.

The terrific work done by Post journalists Jeffie Lam and Edith Lin, underpinned by the impressive work of NGO Liber Research, has made it clear that only the most blatant legal abuses are pursued and, even then, only if the breaches are both dangerous and in plain sight. We also have to thank the latest drone technology, which has made it quick and easy to detect transgressions that in the past would have remained safely hidden from view.

Buildings Department officials say they issued 7,225 removal orders in 2023, and prosecuted 3,310 cases. Rather than give comfort that the government is taking the issue of illegal development seriously, this seems only to illustrate the many cases that remain unnoticed or subject to removal notices that have never been followed up.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu last week promised a crackdown, but his assurances provided only faint comfort. “We will set priorities in accordance with the scale [and] seriousness of the problem, particularly the safety consideration and environmental hazard,” he said. He seemed to imply that the problem was on too large a scale to be systematically tackled and that simple profit-seeking land grabs would be a lower priority.

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Rampant rule-breaking in Hong Kong luxury estates, Post investigation finds

Rampant rule-breaking in Hong Kong luxury estates, Post investigation finds

From my village vantage point, with evidence of illegal development all around, there are several easy, self-funding initiatives that could bring this routine illegality to a halt. For example, move immediately on everything that is visible and contract significant numbers of new staff to prosecute and ensure swift handling of transgressions. Higher fines would more than pay for the additional staffing cost.

Also, make clear that not just owners but architects, interior designers, contractors and even conveyancing lawyers will be prosecuted. It must be glaringly obvious to all of these professionals that work being contracted is not legal. For new homes, no occupancy permit should be issued to a buyer until a certificate of compliance with relevant building requirements is obtained.

At present, the law is a laughing stock. Such widespread and routine abuse undermines the community’s respect for the rule of law. It regards normal law-abiding people as mugs. It attracts corruption and calls into question the integrity of the entire administration. Lee’s “result-oriented” government must get serious.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades

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