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LC Urgent Q2: Fire safety of buildings with sub-divided units

Following is a question by the Hon Starry Lee Wai-king under Rule 24(4) of the Rules of Procedure and a reply by the Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrie Lam, in the Legislative Council today (June 22):

Question:

On the 15th of this month, a No. 3 alarm fire broke out in a tenement building at Ma Tau Wai Road in To Kwa Wan, causing heavy casualties. Quite a number of surviving residents said that it was difficult to escape, and some of them even had to climb down water pipes, which was very dangerous. The tenement building involved is more than 50 years old, which is an old "three nos" building (i.e. no owners' corporation, no management and no maintenance), the staircases are piled up with objects, and division of some flat units into separate units (commonly known as "sub-divided units") is common in the building, which blocked escape routes and also substantially increased resident-flows to a level much higher than that of the original design, seriously jeopardising the fire safety of the building. Furthermore, the situation of many old buildings throughout Hong Kong is similar to that of the building involved in this incident and in case a fire breaks out, the safety of residents' lives and properties will be seriously threatened. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that the Secretary for Development indicated in reply to a question raised at the meeting of this Council on June 1 this year that the Buildings Department had issued 73 removal orders on unauthorised sub-divided units pursuant to the Buildings Ordinance, and most of these cases involved breach of the safety requirements on means of fire escape, whether the aforesaid removal orders covered the building involved in this incident; whether the authorities will immediately deploy staff to inspect the conditions of the fire escapes of all the buildings on which removal orders had been issued, so as to ensure that similar tragedies will not recur; and

(b) whether it will immediately conduct comprehensive inspections of all other old buildings throughout Hong Kong to enhance enforcement of the Fire Services Ordinance and the Buildings Ordinance, and consider mandatory intervention in buildings with serious management and safety problems, so as to ensure that fire escapes in buildings are unblocked; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
 
Reply:

President,

As the question raised by the Hon Starry Lee Wai-king and the one by the Hon Priscilla Leung Mei-fun just now are both about the concern over "sub-divided units" caused by the fire at Ma Tau Wai Road, I will not repeat contents in my replies as far as possible, so as to allow more time for Members to raise follow-up questions. However, this question from the Hon Lee has duly pinpointed the complexity of the problem of "sub-divided units", vis-à-vis the question from the Hon Leung. Such problem straddles not only building structure and fire safety installations, but also building management and residents' knowledge and respect of building safety. That is to say, even if the "sub-divided units" works of a building are in compliance with the fire and building safety requirements, the dangers mentioned in the Hon Lee's question could still prevail if there is a lack of proper building management or safety awareness of the residents: putting stuff to obstruct means of escape, keeping the smoke doors consistently open, or locking exit doors.

Various Government departments have been according high priority towards improving safety of old buildings. The Buildings Department (BD) has been gradually incorporating works associated with "sub-divided units" into an appropriate statutory control regime. On inspections, the Fire Services Department (FSD) and BD have been systematically inspecting old buildings in Hong Kong, including the means of escape therein.

On building management, there are many old single-storey buildings in old districts, the flat owners of which are mainly elderly or grass-root residents, who have limited financial resources and ability in organising themselves for action. There are also owners not willing to pay for building management and maintenance. In addition, the ownership is unclear in many of these buildings, with some other owners leasing their flats to tenants and collecting the rent through agents. As it is difficult to maintain regular contact with these owners, forming owners' corporations (OCs) in these buildings are often very difficult. In April 2010, a pilot scheme was launched by the Home Affairs Department (HAD), in collaboration with the Hong Kong Housing Society and four property management professional bodies, to provide free professional property management advice and follow-up services to owners of around 1 000 units of target clusters of old buildings (the majority of which are "three nos" buildings) so as to enhance the management of these old buildings. The scheme was generally well received by owners. Having gained the valuable experience of the scheme, the HAD has further strengthened its support to owners of old buildings in 2011. The number of target buildings will increase to about 400 every year (i.e. 8 000 units) and the scheme is entitled the Building Management Professional Advisory Service Scheme to provide one-stop professional advisory services to owners and OCs of old and dilapidated private buildings.

Our goal is to improve the safety of old buildings in Hong Kong through the keen collaboration among the various departments mentioned above and with a multi-pronged approach including legislation, inspections, building management as well as education.

The Hon Lee's question has mentioned the No. 3 alarm fire in a tenement building in Ma Tau Wai Road, To Kwa Wan that broke out on the 15th of this month. The fire has caused serious casualties. As the Administration is still investigating into the case, it is not yet possible to confirm whether the serious casualties were caused by the impact of "sub-divided units" works on means of escape. Nevertheless, enhancing the safety of old buildings, in particular that of the "sub-divided units", has become an issue demanding the attention of the Government and the community.

My consolidated reply to the two-part question is as follows:

From January 1, 2008 to April 30, 2011, the BD issued 73 removal orders against "sub-divided units" cases involving unauthorised building works pursuant to the Buildings Ordinance (Cap 123). More than half of the cases involved a breach of safety requirements on means of escape, while a small portion involved problems such as water seepage and structural loading of buildings. As of end of April 2011, 36 of these orders have been complied with, while the remaining 37 have yet to be complied with by the owners. The BD will immediately inspect the buildings with outstanding removal orders and involving means of escape problems. The Department will also consider prosecuting persons who have not complied with the removal orders.

The tenement building in Ma Tau Wai Road, To Kwa Wan mentioned in the question is not included in the 73 removal order mentioned above.

As for inspections and enforcement, fire safety facilities and related construction of composite and domestic buildings built in or before 1987 are governed by the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap 572). The FSD and BD have been inspecting the target buildings in Hong Kong under a programmed approach. During inspections, the departments would take follow-up actions if obstructions to means of escape or potential fire hazards caused by structural problems are identified, or if there are problems associated with the fire service installations and equipment.

To reduce fire risks in old buildings in a more effective and comprehensive manner, the FSD has adopted a "four-pronged" approach starting end-2008, details of which have been included in my reply to the first question.

In addition, in the special operation against "sub-divided units" launched by the BD from April 1 this year, the Department will inspect suspected "sub-divided units" alteration works and ascertain whether such works are in compliance with the planning, design and construction requirements concerning fire safety under the building regulations, in particular the impact on means of escape. The Department will take enforcement action against irregularities. The BD estimates that it will inspect more than 1 300 flat units under its special operation per year. If problems concerning fire service installations and equipment are found during the inspections, the cases will be referred to the FSD for follow-up. The list of target buildings of the special operation is compiled based on a focused principle. If a building exhibits a number of symptoms showing that its safety is being affected by the presence of "sub-divided units", such building will be prioritised for inclusion as a target building. The BD will also make reference to the complaint cases it received in the past when compiling the list.

Nevertheless, I have to reiterate that inspection is only one of the means to tackle building safety problems. We trust that to comprehensively deal with the question of building safety, a multi-pronged approach must be adopted.

After all, we really need to foster a building safety culture in Hong Kong, and owners themselves should take up the ultimate responsibility to repair and maintain buildings. The second reading debate of the Buildings (Amendment) Bill 2010 will be resumed next week. The Bill introduces the Mandatory Building and Window Inspection Schemes, which are important schemes tailored to require owners to take up their own responsibilities. Implementation of the Schemes will also help combat the problem of unauthorised "sub-divided units". We will require the registered inspectors to report suspected symptoms and cases of "sub-divided units" to the Building Authority during their carrying out of prescribed inspections to the common areas of buildings in order to facilitate follow-up actions by the authority.

For buildings with serious management and safety problems, the Home Affairs Bureau (HAB) considers that any mandatory measures to require these buildings to engage property management companies are not as effective as direct interventions by the enforcement departments. For those owners who feel they could do nothing about the issue, the HAB considers that it is more effective to provide appropriate and specific support measures. As I have just mentioned, the HAD will strengthen the Building Management Professional Advisory Service Scheme this year to enhance the support to the owners of old buildings. Furthermore, District Offices under the HAD will continue to provide assistance and support to OCs, assist owners in applying for various loan schemes on building safety administered by the Government and assist OCs in handling building management matters. This includes attending meetings upon invitation, handling enquiries on building management as well as giving advice on procedures of meetings convened under the Building Management Ordinance (Cap 344) and those pertaining to procurement, repair and financial management for reference.

Thank you, President.


Ends/Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Issued at HKT 17:24

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