Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands' speech at Joint Institute Conference on 'Urban Survival'

Following is a speech by the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands, Mr Michael Suen, at the Joint Institute Conference on "Urban Survival" this morning (November 24):

Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. I have great pleasure in joining you at today's conference jointly organised by The Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA), The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE), The Hong Kong Institute of Planners (HKIP) and The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors (HKIS).

The theme of today's conference is "Urban Survival". This is a challenging and meaningful subject which merits timely discussion, and I would like to commend the conference organisers for making use of today's platform to bring academics, professionals, and Government officials together to deliberate on this important topic.

It is generally accepted as a truism that a safe and sustainable environment is an overarching goal for urban survival. Indeed, our community is no longer content to have the success of their city measured purely in economic terms. Increasingly, there is a greater emphasis to upgrade our quality of life.

In creating a healthier and more sustainable living environment here in Hong Kong, a key challenge is to come out on top of the problem of building neglect, which has been brought about by a lack of proper building maintenance. As a result, we find a sizeable number of buildings in varying degrees of disrepair. They pose potential threats to the safety of the public as well as that of their own occupants.

Our community's awakening to this building neglect problem has been brought about by unhappy, and often unpleasant, experiences. The public has been traumatised by a number of fatal accidents arising from poorly maintained buildings. There is also an aesthetic angle to the problem: these prematurely aging buildings are eyesores. In our society's quest for a better and safer living environment, tackling building neglect must be given high priority.

A few years back, we started to inject substantial efforts and resources into fostering a building care culture within the community. We have strengthened public education on the importance of building care. We have stepped up enforcement against dilapidated buildings in need of repair. We have also put in place various forms of financial and technical assistance to facilitate building owners in upkeeping their buildings. Our efforts have now borne fruit. And we are encouraged to see a gradual change in owners' mindset about building care. Increasingly, the community is coming to accept that it is their responsibility to provide proper maintenance to their own buildings. There is a growing sense among owners that to do so brings about benefits not only to the community at large, but also for their own good as well.

With the limited initial success, the Government has then taken the significant next step to consult the public on the need to put in place a more permanent solution to resolve this long-standing problem of building neglect. We have conducted a two-stage public consultation exercise on building management and maintenance to seek community consensus on the principle and the approach to tackle the problem.

The consultation results have reaffirmed two fundamental principles. First, it is the building owners' responsibility for upkeeping their buildings and shouldering the financial responsibility. Second, mandatory building inspection is a practicable and effective long-term solution to arrest building deterioration and to ensure building safety. There is also broad consensus within the community on these two points.

Without compromising building safety and our policy objectives, we are now working out the necessary details of the mandatory building inspection scheme by conducting more in-depth consultation with the key stakeholders and taking on board public comments received as far as practicable. We plan to announce the results of the public consultation and the scheme details early next year.

As all four institutes represented here today have all along been our close partners in our search for a practical and pragmatic inspection scheme, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of our initial thoughts in this connection.

The first point for me to make is that the community generally agrees that owners of all private domestic, non-domestic and composite buildings aged 30 and above should be required to appoint a qualified building inspector to inspect their buildings and carry out necessary rectification on a regular basis.

There is, however, a clear voice from the community requesting further finetuning of the proposed scheme to facilitate compliance. In particular, we have received a substantial number of views in favour of a longer inspection cycle to allow more time for owners to comply with the inspection and rectification programmes. They believe that this could also facilitate those building owners who need to take some time to organise themselves to set up some form of management structures to coordinate the required works.

We have critically examined the implications of a longer inspection cycle from the building safety angle and the need to strike a proper balance between ensuring building safety and minimising owners' burden. We are now considering the feasibility of a longer inspection cycle, say, every 10 years, by reference to the date when Buildings Department last issued the mandatory inspection notification to owners.

We understand that ideally the shorter the inspection cycle, the better it is from the safety enhancement angle. But a 10-year cycle would be acceptable from the building safety's point of view. At the same time it would greatly enhance community acceptance and promote compliance with the scheme. There is, however, greater reliance on owners to properly maintain their buildings on an ongoing basis after the inspection and also a need for perhaps more frequent inspections as necessary. We will further consult stakeholders, including your institutes, before deciding the best way forward.

The second point I want to make is that the community is also concerned about the quantity and quality of service providers. Put simply, whether there are sufficient qualified inspectors and contractors in the market, and whether or not there is proper monitoring of these service providers under the scheme.

To meet the community's concerns in this regard, we are considering allowing more professionals with sufficient qualification and relevant experience to carry out building inspection. This will give due recognition to those professionals qualified for the inspection task and maximise the use of their expertise for the benefits of the community.

But before I go any further, I must emphasise the cardinal principle which we will uphold when pursuing this idea. We will not go after the "quantity" of building inspectors at the expense of "quality". This is in line with public sentiment.

To achieve this, we will consider creating a separate register by law to uphold the professional standard of building inspectors. The Buildings Department will, in consultation with the relevant professional institutes and industry, examine carefully the qualifications and experience of the professionals who will be eligible for registering as building inspectors. Upon the launch of the scheme, the Buildings Department will also put in place all the necessary relevant measures to ensure the standard and quality of service providers, including promulgating detailed guidelines for the building inspection and rectification works.

On this particular score, I shall count on the industry and the professionals, most of them will be members of your institutes, to work closely with us to ensure smooth implementation. We are confident that we will come up with a viable scheme which will win public confidence upon the launch of the scheme.

The third point I would like to make is one alluded to earlier. Our consultation has pointed to a community consensus that owners need to keep their properties in good condition, and to bear the necessary costs. We will adhere to this principle in the implementation of the mandatory building inspection scheme.

That said, we are always mindful that some sectors of our community may lack the financial means and technical know-how in complying with the scheme requirements. They include some of the elderly and low-income owners. We fully understand their situation. We attach great importance to coming up with ways to provide assistance to those owners in need for them to comply with the requirements under the scheme.

Currently, the Hong Kong Housing Society and the Urban Renewal Authority are providing assistance to owners in need in discharging their duties to properly manage and maintain their buildings. Under the Building Management and Maintenance Scheme launched early last year, the Housing Society has provided financial and technical assistance to over 1,400 buildings. The building rehabilitation programme undertaken by the URA has likewise assisted over 250 buildings so far.

To support the smooth and full implementation of the future mandatory building inspection scheme, we are glad to have solicited the agreement of the Hong Kong Housing Society to further strengthen its financial and technical support and assistance to owners in need, premised on the success of its Building Management and Maintenance Scheme. The Housing Society will also work hand in hand with the Government to facilitate owners in forming owners' corporations. We are discussing the details with the Housing Society.

The fourth point I want to make is on a related subject. Most of you are aware that the Housing Society, with the assistance of relevant bodies, including your institutes, is working on the establishment of a voluntary building classification scheme, VBCS in short, to give due recognition to buildings with proper maintenance and sound management.

The VBCS will encompass more extensive aspects than that of the mandatory building inspection scheme, including the performance of a building's management system, the presence of environmental and green features, as well as the adoption of other value-adding features such as innovative designs and advanced building technologies.

To give incentives to buildings accredited with good ratings under the VBCS, we will consider allowing such buildings to be exempted from the mandatory scheme. The detailed arrangements on the interface of the two schemes will have to be worked out in order to avoid confusion. In the process, we will ensure that the standards and requirements of this voluntary scheme will be no less than those under the mandatory building inspection scheme. I believe that this scheme will complement our mandatory scheme in the promotion of building care culture.

We are encouraged by the community consensus solicited through the two-stage public consultation, which has provided us with a solid basis to implement the mandatory building inspection scheme.

With your institutes as our partners, we are confident that the future mandatory inspection scheme will be successful and instrumental in creating a sustainable and safe living environment for us and for other generations to come. There is still a lot of work to be done and we know for sure that there will still be hurdles and challenges along the way. We will continue to count on your support to bring mandatory building inspection into reality, which would be an important landmark in our work to strive for a safer living environment.

Lastly, I would like to wish the conference every success. Our deliberations today will no doubt help us set foot on the road to a healthier and more sustainable living environment in Hong Kong. Thank you.

Ends/Friday, November 24, 2006
Issued at HKT 11:16