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LCQ8: Restrictions on extension of squatters and erection of agricultural structures for agricultural uses

Following is a question by the Hon Steven Ho and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Michael Wong, in the Legislative Council today (November 1):

Question:

Quite a number of farmers have relayed to me that currently, farmers have a great need for suitable facilities (e.g. agricultural structures) for use in agricultural production. However, according to the prevailing squatter control policy, any extension, new erection, addition, change of use or alteration with materials that does not comply with the Squatter Control Survey Record is not allowed for surveyed squatters. On the other hand, some farmers have indicated that at present, the authorities often refuse to grant them a Letter of Approval for Agricultural Structures and the relevant certificate of exemption (Letter of Approval) for erecting agricultural structures on agricultural land for keeping watch, storage or other related agricultural uses. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the current number of surveyed squatters on agricultural land across the territory, with a tabulated breakdown by District Council districts;

(2) of the respective numbers of applications for repairing surveyed squatters on agricultural land received, approved and refused by the authorities in each of the past five years; if there were refused applications, of the reasons for that;

(3) whether the authorities will improve the prevailing squatter control policy and consider approving applications for repairs or extension of surveyed squatters on the basis of certain constructive factors (such as actual needs in agricultural production and enhancement of productivity, as well as with conservation significance and compatibility with the surrounding environment); if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(4) of the respective numbers of applications for issuance of Letter of Approval received, approved and refused by the Lands Department in each of the past five years; if there were refused applications, of the reasons for that; whether other means are currently available for farmers to apply for erecting agricultural structures?

Reply:

President,

Under the prevailing squatter control policy, squatter structures surveyed during the 1982 Squatter Control Survey (SCS) were allocated squatter survey numbers, but they remain unauthorised in nature and are only "tolerated" on a temporary basis. The Government's position is that any surveyed squatter structure on government land is unauthorised occupation of government land and any surveyed squatter structure on private agricultural land is an unauthorised structure on private agricultural land, but they are "tolerated" on a temporary basis, provided that the location, dimensions, building materials and use are the same as the record in the 1982 SCS, until the surveyed squatter structure has to be cleared for development, environmental improvement or safety reasons, or until the surveyed squatter structure is phased out through natural wastage. Such "tolerance" does not create any legal rights or interests or obligations, and does not confer on any person the right of occupation of land.

Under the squatter control policy, any extension, change of use, rebuilding without prior approval or alteration with materials that do not conform to the record in the 1982 SCS is not allowed. A surveyed squatter structure not complying with the aforementioned requirements will lose the status of a surveyed squatter structure and its SCS Record will also be cancelled. In view of public concern about non-compliant squatter structures and having considered that the squatter control policy explicitly requires enforcement actions to be taken against non-compliant squatter structures, the Lands Department (LandsD) announced on June 22, 2016 the strengthening of squatter control measures. Specifically, if there is evidence showing that a new extension has been completed after that day, actions will be taken by the LandsD to cancel the squatter survey number instantly and demolish the whole unauthorised structure on government land immediately upon detection without giving any opportunity to rectify. Similarly, if the newly extended structure sits on private land and is in breach of the lease conditions of the private agricultural land, the LandsD will immediately take lease enforcement actions.

The squatter structures then surveyed for agricultural-related use are regulated by the same squatter control policy. Prior approval is also required for any repairs. Such restrictions, which are not targeted only at agricultural use, have nothing to do with the Government's agriculture policy.

Separately, there is an established mechanism to allow farmers who wish to erect agricultural structures (e.g. greenhouses, livestock sheds, hatcheries, fish ponds, store rooms, etc.) on private agricultural land to apply for a Letter of Approval for Agricultural Structures. To facilitate applications by farmers, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) will receive application forms and conduct preliminary processing. The AFCD will assess if the structures under application are necessary for agricultural operations, and refer the case and its assessment to the LandsD for processing according to the established procedures. Unlike squatter structures, issuing a Letter of Approval for Agricultural Structures is an official arrangement which ensures that only applications for erecting agricultural structures are allowed.

My reply to the four parts of the question is as follows:

(1) The LandsD's seven regional Squatter Control Offices (SCOs) across the territory keep records of surveyed squatter structures, but no separate statistical breakdown by District Council districts is available. According to the records, the number of surveyed squatter structures involving private agricultural land is tabulated below:
 
Squatter Control Office Number of surveyed squatter structures on private agricultural land
(As at June 30, 2017)
Squatter Control/Hong Kong and Lei Yue Mun Office 1 122
Squatter Control/Kowloon, Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing Office 5 095
Squatter Control/Islands Office 4 591
Squatter Control/New Territories East (1) Office
(covering Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Tai Po and (part of) North District)
20 541
Squatter Control/New Territories East (2) Office
(covering (part of) North District and (part of) Yuen Long)
78 593
Squatter Control/New Territories West (1) Office
(covering Tuen Mun and (part of) Yuen Long)
43 290
Squatter Control/New Territories West (2) Office
(covering (part of) Yuen Long)
107 340
Total 260 572
 
(2) Information on applications for repairs of surveyed squatter structures on private agricultural land processed by the LandsD during the period from 2012 to June 30, 2017 is as follows: 
 
Year Number of appli-
cations received
Number of appli-
cations approved
Number of appli-
cations rejected
Reasons for rejection
2012 8 8 0 -
2013 10 10 0 -
2014 9 8 1 The conditions of the squatter structure did not comply with the surveyed records of the structure.
2015 11 9 2 The applicant withdrew the application;
The genuine intention of the applicant was to re-erect his/her surveyed squatter structure on another lot.
2016 12 9 3 The applicants withdrew their applications;
The applicant failed to provide documents to prove that he/she was the resident of the surveyed squatter structure.
2017
(up to  June 30)
9 9 0 -
 
(3) As set out in the preamble of my reply, under the prevailing squatter control policy, surveyed squatter structures remain unauthorised in nature and are only "tolerated" on a temporary basis. Any extension or change of use is not allowed.

If there is a genuine need to build an agricultural structure, a mechanism has been put in place to allow an application for a Letter of Approval (for details, please refer to the introductory paragraphs in the preamble of my reply) or a Short Term Waiver (STW) (for details, please refer to part (4) below) for agricultural structures on private agricultural land, so that such facilities can be built.

(4) Information on the number of applications received, approved and rejected, and on reasons for rejection in respect of Letters of Approval for Agricultural Structures on private agricultural land received by the LandsD during the period from 2012 to June 30, 2017 is tabulated as follows:
 
Year Number of appli-
cations received
Number of appli-
cations approved
Number of appli-
cations rejected
Reasons for rejection
2012 55 50 1 The dimensions of the structure exceeded the requirement.
2013 21 19 1 The dimensions of the structure exceeded the requirement.
2014 21 10 3 The applicant failed to provide sufficient information;
The application did not meet planning requirements;
Unauthorised structure(s) was(were) found on the lot(s) under application.
2015 27 12 3 The applicants failed to provide sufficient information.
2016 30 8 3 The applicant failed to provide sufficient information;
Unauthorised structure(s) was(were) found on the lot(s) under application.
2017
(up to  June 30)
21 5 1 Unauthorised structure(s) was(were) found on the lot(s) under application.
 
Note: Since it takes time to process an application, the applications approved and rejected during the above-mentioned periods may not correspond to the applications received during the same period. According to our records, more than 50 applications are still being processed. Most of the cases are pending supplementary information to be provided by the applicants. District Lands Offices can only continue processing the applications upon receipt of the required information.

Apart from a Letter of Approval for Agricultural Structures mentioned in the introductory paragraphs in the preamble, a land owner may also submit to the LandsD an application for an STW to build other non-domestic facilities on private agricultural land. When the application is received, the LandsD will seek advice from relevant government departments and post a notice on the application site. If the application for an STW is approved, the applicant has to pay the relevant fee to the Government.
Ends/Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Issued at HKT 15:00
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