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LCQ8: Squatter structures and agricultural structures

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 4):

Question:

The seven regional Squatter Control Offices (SCOs) under the Lands Department (LandsD) are responsible for implementing the squatter control policy. Besides, the LandsD is responsible for the vetting and approval of applications for erecting agricultural structures on private agricultural land. On matters relating to squatter structures and agricultural structures, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the respective total numbers of surveyed squatter structures on (i) private agricultural land and (ii) government land throughout the territory in each of the past five years, with a tabulated breakdown by the SCO responsible and the use of such squatter structures (i.e. domestic use, agricultural use and other uses);

(2) of the respective numbers of applications for undertaking repair works for surveyed squatter structures on (a) private agricultural land and (b) government land which the LandsD (i) received, (ii) approved and (iii) rejected in each of the past five years, with a breakdown by the SCO responsible and the use of such squatter structures; if there were rejected applications, of the reasons for that;

(3) of the respective numbers of non-compliant surveyed (i) domestic and (ii) non-domestic squatter structures which were demolished by the Government in each of the past five years, with a tabulated breakdown by the SCO responsible; 

(4) given that the Government launched, in November 2018, the Squatter Occupants Voluntary Registration Scheme to complement its initiative to revise the ex-gratia compensation and rehousing arrangements for domestic households in squatter structures affected by the Government's development clearance exercises, of (i) the number of registrations initially anticipated to be received and (ii) the number of registrations received to date by the Government, as well as (iii) the estimated number of eligible domestic households in squatter structures who have not yet registered; whether it will consider further extending the registration deadline and relaxing the eligibility requirements for ex-gratia compensation and rehousing arrangements;

(5) whether it knows the respective numbers of cases in the past five years in which (i) surveyed squatter structures for (a) agricultural use and (b) non-agricultural use, as well as (ii) agricultural structures on private agricultural land, collapsed due to their dilapidated conditions or typhoons and caused casualties; whether it has studied the correlation between the difficulties in applying for rebuilding and repair of those structures and their collapses;

(6) of the respective numbers of applications for a Letter of Approval for Agricultural Structures (i) received, (ii) approved and (iii) rejected by the LandsD in each of the past five years; the average and the longest time taken by the LandsD for processing those applications; what other means, apart from applying for a Letter of Approval, are currently available for farmers to apply for erecting such structures; and

(7) as the Government currently requires that if an agricultural structure to be erected exceeds a certain height and area, the applicant must (i) submit a building plan approved by the Buildings Department, and (ii) engage a qualified technician to certify the structural safety of the structure, of the commencement dates of these two requirements; as some farmers have relayed their difficulties in affording the high costs associated with these requirements, whether the Government will review and appropriately relax such requirements?
 
Reply:
 
President,
 
Squatter structures generally refer to structures illegally occupying government land (GL) or erected on private agricultural land (PAL) in breach of lease conditions. The Government conducted a territory-wide Squatter Control Survey (SCS) in 1982 to record the locations, dimensions (i.e. length, width and height), building materials and uses of the squatter structures. Such records formed the basis for squatter control. Under the prevailing squatter control policy, squatter structures surveyed in the 1982 SCS were allocated squatter survey numbers. If the locations, dimensions, building materials and uses of these structures are the same as the record in the 1982 SCS, these surveyed squatter structures will be tolerated on a temporary basis (but by nature remain illegal or in breach of lease) until they have to be cleared for development, environmental improvement or safety reasons, or phased out through natural wastage (for example when the structure is no longer occupied or ceases to exist).

If a surveyed squatter structure is extended or rebuilt without permission, has its use changed, or its building material altered from temporary as originally recorded in the SCS to permanent, the Lands Department (LandsD) will take enforcement action in accordance with the squatter control policy. Having considered that the squatter control policy aims to tolerate temporarily the existence of squatter structures, but not to encourage unauthorised extension, the LandsD tightened its enforcement arrangements on June 22, 2016. Specifically, if a new extension is completed after that day, instant actions will be taken to cancel the squatter survey number and demolition will be arranged once detected, without giving any opportunity to rectify.
 
There are seven regional Squatter Control Offices (SCOs) under the LandsD, viz. (i) Hong Kong and Lei Yue Mun (HK&LYM) Office, (ii) Kowloon, Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing (K, TW&KT) Office, (iii) Islands (Is) Office, (iv) New Territories East(1) (NTE1) Office, (v) New Territories East(2) (NTE2) Office, (vi) New Territories West(1) (NTW1) Office and (vii) New Territories West(2) (NTW2) Office, responsible for squatter control matter.

Having consulted the Food and Health Bureau on sub-question (7), my reply to various parts of the question asked by Hon Ho is as follows:

(1) In the past five years (from 2015 to 2019), the number of surveyed squatter structures for domestic use is tabulated as follows:
 
  No. of surveyed domestic squatter structures
Year SCO
HK & LYM K,TW & KT Is NTE1 NTE2 NTW1 NTW2
PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL
2015 786 2659 2151 3354 1692 5180 4993 7778 16221 6736 8596 5104 17392 1792
2016 782 2646 2145 3334 1689 5170 4950 7771 16177 6735 8528 5104 17321 1761
2017 781 2636 2136 3322 1687 5168 4915 7764 16153 6721 8498 5101 17234 1746
2018 781 2631 2120 3174 1681 5166 4893 7754 16134 6721 8441 5058 17160 1731
2019 781 2624 2112 3159 1672 5162 4881 7742 16132 6721 8391 5053 17094 1709
 
In the past five years (from 2015 to 2019), the number of surveyed squatter structures for non-domestic use is tabulated as follows:
 
  No. of surveyed non-domestic squatter structures
Year SCO
HK & LYM K,TW & KT Is NTE1 NTE2 NTW1 NTW2
PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL
2015 343 1867 2975 2666 2909 13227 15834 28282 62687 23252 35189 16995 90513 7545
2016 341 1855 2971 2656 2904 13207 15698 28244 62537 23247 34842 16995 90232 7266
2017 341 1848 2955 2650 2897 13188 15576 28183 62428 23225 34708 16968 89895 7021
2018 341 1837 2944 2607 2891 13183 15463 28105 62379 23205 34460 16872 89551 6821
2019 341 1830 2930 2600 2888 13179 15405 28061 62351 23201 34208 16839 89216 6651

(2) In the past five years (from 2015 to 2019), relevant information on applications for repairs of surveyed squatter structures is tabulated as follows:
 
Year (Note 1) Number of applications received Number of applications approved Number of applications rejected / withdrawn (Note 2)
PAL GL PAL GL PAL GL
2015 11 16 9 15 2 1
2016 12 19 9 19 3 0
2017 15 24 11 23 4 1
2018 28 37 24 34 4 3
2019 16 17 11 16 5 1

Note 1: In the same year, the applications approved and the applications rejected/withdrawn may not correspond to the applications received during the same period.

Note 2: Reasons for rejection include applicants failing to provide document to prove their identity as the occupant of the surveyed squatter structure, applicants failing to obtain consent from the registered owner of the PAL for repairing the surveyed squatter structure, etc..

(3) Surveyed squatter structures with their squatter survey numbers cancelled or structures not covered by government licence or any other form of approval are unauthorised structures. The Government will take enforcement action in accordance with relevant legislation or land lease, which include demolishing the unauthorised structure on government land or taking lease enforcement actions for cases involving private land.
 
In the past five years (from 2015 to 2019), the number of structures (not limited to surveyed squatter structures) on government land demolished by SCO is tabulated as follows:
 
Year Number of structures on government land demolished by SCO
2015 212
2016 271
2017 235
2018 182
2019 130

(4) Launched on November 1, 2018, the Squatter Occupants Voluntary Registration Scheme is a one-off exercise to complement the enhanced ex-gratia compensation and rehousing arrangements for persons residing in squatter structures affected by the Government's development clearance exercises as announced on May 10, 2018. Specifically, for persons residing in licenced non-domestic structures or in surveyed squatter structures for non-domestic uses (hereinafter collectively referred to as "non-domestic squatter structures"), subject to their registration with the LandsD under the Scheme, they will fulfil the basic eligibility requirement on applying for rehousing and ex-gratia allowances if their non-domestic squatter structures are cleared in the Government's development clearance exercises in future. Non-domestic squatter structures should not be used for domestic purposes.The Scheme aims to establish a register to record households who have already lived in non-domestic squatter structures, so that they have the opportunity to apply for rehousing arrangements and ex-gratia allowances if they are affected by the Government's future development clearance exercises. The Scheme also seeks to discourage others from moving into and residing in non-domestic squatter structures as well as to curb related speculative activities. The Government has not set a target on the number of registration. Up to October 27, 2020, the LandsD has received about 1 450 applications for registration.
 
Taking into consideration that certain grass-roots households may not be well aware of the Scheme's objectives in the past, and that the Government's publicity has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the LandsD has announced on October 22, 2020 the extension of the application deadline of the Squatter Occupants Voluntary Registration Scheme to October 31, 2021, and in parallel relaxed the registration criteria – a person would be eligible for registration under the Scheme if he or she can prove continued residence in a non-domestic squatter structure since May 10, 2018, or before (i.e. the date on which the enhanced ex-gratia compensation and rehousing arrangements were announced by the Government). Prior to this relaxation, only those applicants who demonstrated their continued residence in those structures since May 10, 2016, or before would be eligible for registration under the Scheme.
     
(5) The Government does not have statistics on casualties caused by collapsed surveyed squatter structures or agricultural structures due to disrepair or typhoon, nor do we conduct research on related matters. The repair of surveyed squatter structures and agricultural structures may be carried out on application with the LandsD or in accordance with the conditions under the Letter of Approval as appropriate. The LandsD will act timely in accordance with the established mechanism and provide assistance as far as possible.

(6) and (7) The main avenue for erection of agricultural structures on PAL (such as greenhouse, livestock shed, hatchery, fish pond, store room etc.) is through applying with the LandsD a Letter of Approval. The prescribed terms and conditions of the Letter of Approval will be set in accordance with the comments received from relevant departments. Processing time is subject to individual circumstances, and will be longer for complicated cases (such as involving land ownership or site boundary issues).
 
In the past five years (from 2015 to 2019), information on applications for Letters of Approval for agricultural structures on PAL is tabulated as follows:
 
Year (Note 3) Number of applications received Number of applications approved Number of applications rejected/ withdrawn (Note 4)
2015 27 12 3
2016 30 8 3
2017 23 14 23
2018 63 24 25
2019 31 18 9

Note 3: In the same year, the applications approved and the applications rejected/withdrawn may not correspond to the applications received during the same period.

Note 4: Reasons for rejection include applicants failing to provide sufficient information, the existence of unauthorised structure(s) on the site under application, or applicants failing to fulfil planning requirement etc..

According to the prevailing legislation, multi-storey agricultural structures or those with height over 4.57metres in the New Territories are regulated by the Buildings Ordinance (Cap. 123). Although single-storey agricultural structures with height not exceeding 4.57m in the New Territories are not regulated by the Buildings Ordinance, when issuing the Letter of Approval for agricultural structures exceeding 1 000 square feet in area, the Government has over the years required the applicants to submit plans to the Government; and with a view to ensuring further the safety of the structures, the Government has in recent years required the appointment of qualified personnel to verify the structural safety of the structure. Such requirements are formulated based on the consideration that structures with bigger size are subject to more demanding building structural design and technical requirements, hence the need for corresponding measures to ensure safety. The Government will maintain communication with the trade, and review the approval requirements of the Letter of Approval for agricultural structure from time to time, as and when necessary.
Ends/Wednesday, November 4, 2020
Issued at HKT 15:55
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