The following is the key-note speech given by the Secretary for Planning and Lands, Mr John Tsang, at the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors' Annual Conference 2001 today (October 20):
The New Partnership
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to join you today at the 2001 Annual Conference of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors. The theme "Managing Social and Cultural Changes - Challenges and Opportunities" is particularly relevant at this time when we are experiencing fundamental structural changes to our economy as well as changes in expectation towards the role of Government among our people. We, as Government, are responding to these changes with a "paradigm shift" of our own, both administratively and attitudinally. I would like to share with you this morning some of the changes that we are making to turn the challenges confronting us into opportunities. I will use the example of one of Planning and Lands Bureau's principal priorities in developing a safe and decent built environment for everyone in our community.
In the area of building maintenance, the challenges are quite easily recognizable. Over the years, the problems of prematurely aging buildings and unauthorized building works are multiplying fast and they are there for everyone to see. Walk down one of the older districts and you will quickly sense the magnitude of the problem. There are some 11,000 private buildings that are over 20 years of age and some 800,000 unauthorized building works scattered around Hong Kong. If we do not act fast to deal with these issues, the deterioration of our built environment today will become "time bombs" of tomorrow. This has stimulated our thinking beyond the current constraints to find suitable solutions.
We recognize that solutions to these problems are essential to the well-being of our people and we had, indeed, begun to effect changes in our mode of operation. But the public is not happy with our pace, and with the many accidents and nuisances caused by dilapidated buildings, the public has called upon the Government to redouble our efforts. This is wholly understandable. Members of our community deserve a decent and safe living environment, and we have the responsibility to ensure that they live as comfortably as possible. The daunting task facing us is how to make the best use of the limited resources available to us to deal with the issues at hand and how to re-position Government as regulator in the new partnership with the owners and the profession.
Owners' responsibilities in building maintenance
It is our belief that owners must play an active role in the maintenance of their buildings. Timely maintenance work is absolutely essential. Without proper maintenance, many of our buildings are already plagued with unauthorized building works, illegal rooftop structures, water seepage, and the list goes on. In order to prevent these buildings from aging prematurely, we are urging and assisting building owners to take care of their own buildings. Taking advantage of the public's increasing awareness of their civic responsibility and willingness to take part in community affairs, we are seeking to redefine the role of building owners in building maintenance.
Last year, we introduced a pilot Coordinated Maintenance of Buildings Scheme to provide a "one-stop" service for building owners to facilitate the maintenance of their own buildings. To enable building owners to do a proper job and to lend them the proper support in the process, we have designated an officer from the Buildings Department to coordinate all the activities that have to do with building safety in the buildings included in the Scheme. This officer will coordinate actions of all the Government departments concerned to ensure efficiency and cost-effectiveness, with minimal inconvenience to owners and Owners' Corporations in carrying out their work. Through this Scheme, we are encouraging more and more building owners to take the initiative to maintain their own buildings properly. Building safety, as a result, will be enhanced and the quality of life for people in Hong Kong will be improved. We have seen some very encouraging results so far and we are planning to increase the number of target buildings next year.
Profession's role in clearing unauthorized building works
The profession is also playing a major role in keeping our built environment safe.
In the past two years, we have been working hard to demonstrate our resolve to eliminate unauthorized building works. We have broken the back of the problem with "blitz" operations requiring owners to remove illegal works on the external walls of a building in one go. In addition, we are setting up a dedicated task force to clamp down on new illegal works before their completion. These efforts are essential if we want to win the war against illegal works, but they also consume a disproportionate amount of our scarce resources. The outlay is necessary at the start of the campaign, but to sustain its effectiveness, we need help from the profession to accomplish our mission. This year, we have begun to out-source projects to clear unauthorized building works on external walls. The results so far are highly promising, and we are considering expanding the scope of our mission to employ more private practitioners to expedite our enforcement actions.
Modernizing building rules and regulations
To complement our efforts in maintaining our buildings and clearing unauthorized building works, we have also embarked on a progrmame to modernize building rules and regulations. In this connection, we have launched a comprehensive review of the Buildings Ordinance earlier this year. So far, we have identified a number of items to be included in the first tranche of legislative amendments to the Buildings Ordinance. These items include
(a) the introduction of a "minor works" category on top of the existing "building works" and "exempted works" in order to improve the quality of control over minor works and to allow professionals and contractors to have greater authority and responsibility over their work;
(b) transforming a number of prescriptive standards in Building (Planning) Regulations to performance-based requirements in order to remove barriers to and to enlarge the scope for the adoption of innovative technologies; and
(c) deleting a number of obsolete provisions.
In modernizing building regulations, we have a vision of a vastly improved built environment in the years to come. Buildings will be properly designed, properly managed and properly maintained. Our built forms will be creative, people-oriented and functional. We are relying on the profession to successfully achieve this goal. In addition, we are relying on the profession to help minimize bureaucracy and to enhance administrative efficiency. We are now critically examining the role of Government in the regulatory process in order to identify more room to entrust greater responsibility to the building profession.
The Government has always been acting as the "inspector" in the construction process. We used to check every last detail in the building plans submitted by professionals to ensure that requirements laid down in the laws are met. The Government has been so diligent that the industry has become reliant on our comprehensive feedback to ensure that their designs comply with the required standards. This takes up an inordinate amount of time and resources going back and forth. As rules and regulations multiply, so has our bureaucracy, and it has become so complicated that it really needs the service of a seasoned professional just to guide applicants through the course. This is not acceptable. From time to time, we hear building professionals complaining about the difficulties in securing approval for their submissions. In my short tenure as Secretary for Planning and Lands, I have heard repeated calls to simplify our vetting process.
I am sympathetic to these urgings, and I believe that as Government, we need to change our role from an enforcer to a facilitator. There is a clear need for us to simplify the vetting process without compromising building safety. My colleagues in the Buildings Departments are currently formulating proposals to do just that. We intend to reduce the number of items to be checked by Government, giving the private practitioner responsibility to verify compliance for the rest. In principle, the practitioner will need only provide a "concept plan" to Government to demonstrate the strategy to be adopted for the key issues to satisfy the legal requirements. The practitioner will have to verify the rest according to his professional standards. This will save time and resources for all concerned. We will return the steer to the practitioner and that is where it belongs.
We have been collaborating with the profession in developing a blueprint for such a "concept plan". We believe that this arrangement would enhance the partnership between private practitioners and Government. Building practitioners can act as the extended "Building Authority" and Government as the auditor.
We are also looking into the feasibility of accepting computer calculations on floor area in substitution for a separate set of hard copy calculations prepared by authorized persons. When established, this will be another big step towards having our plan submission and checking process conducted through electronic means.
These are only some of the examples of the initiatives that we are seeking to implement, but I hope the underlying intentions are clear. We want to be market friendly. We want to be facilitating. We want to minimize bureaucracy. We want to be a constructive partner to the public and to the profession so that we, as Government, will be able to manage the changes and meet the challenges in achieving our objective to provide a better environment and improved standards of living to our community.
End/Saturday, October 20, 2001