Administration attaches great attention to sub-divided units

In response to the commentaries and media reports today (June 16) on the administration's policy regarding "sub-division of flat units", commonly known as "sub-divided units", a spokesman for the Development Bureau (DEVB) stressed that the building safety problem arising from sub-divided units is a matter of serious concern to the administration. Initiatives are being proactively implemented to strengthen control over building works in relation to sub-divided units.

Since April 1, 2011, the Buildings Department (BD) has launched a series of multi-pronged new measures to enhance building safety in Hong Kong through different means, including legislative proposal and enforcement action specifically addressing the problem of sub-divided units.

On legislation, upon consulting the Subcommittee on Building Safety and Related Issues under the Panel on Development of the Legislative Council at the beginning of the year, the Development Bureau submitted a set of proposed amendments to the Bills Committee on Buildings (Amendment) Bill 2010 on February 11, 2011. Among others, the amendment proposed to enable the BD to apply for warrants from the Court under the Buildings Ordinance to facilitate its staff to enter individual premises for taking enforcement actions, including inspection and/or necessary repair works.

The reason for introducing this proposal is that BD staff is now facing great difficulties in requesting to enter the interior of buildings to conduct investigation (including works in relation to suspected sub-divided units). Entry of BD staff is often refused by uncooperative owners or occupants, despite the department's effort to deploy significant staffing resources to pay visits to the flats during different times. Although BD staff is empowered under section 22 of the Buildings Ordinance to enter into any individual premises and where necessary, in the presence of a police officer, break into such premises to ascertain their safety, such power is difficult to be exercised given the public's general concern over the disturbance this may cause and private property rights. In light of this, with reference to certain pieces of legislation which have similar arrangement and provisions, we proposed the aforesaid legislative amendment enabling BD to apply for warrants from the Court. We consider that the approach of applying warrants for the enforcement agents to enter individual premises could better facilitate the BD in responding to complaints and take enforcement actions against building safety problems and ensure the safety of the public. This will be particularly useful for inspections relating to sub-divided units and other suspicious building safety problems within individual premises.

Members discussed in details all proposed amendments at the meetings of the Bills Committee between February and May this year. Their reactions towards the warrant proposal were mixed. While some members regarded that the daily life of individual owners and occupants would be affected, others acknowledged and concerned about the practical problems encountered by the BD in carrying out enforcement actions. In this regards, we have suggested refinements and further safeguards to clearly define under what circumstances that staff of the BD might apply for such warrants from the Court, which will act as a gatekeeper. The magistrate concerned will take into account all related information submitted by the Building Authority, and only in compliance to prevailing legislation as well as demonstrating a genuine need in building safety, will a warrant for entry to private premises be issued.

Despite the fact that some members in the Bills Committee showed support to the proposed amendments, including the warrant proposal, certain members regarded that further discussion were necessary and considered, according to the legal advice provided by the Legislative Council Secretariat, that the concerned amendments should not be included in the Buildings (Amendment) Bill on Mandatory Building / Window Inspection Scheme. To avoid delay in the implementation of these two schemes and to respect members' views, we have decided to introduce a separate bill with the provisions under the proposed amendments later this year with a view to enhancing building safety. This will include legislation on enforcement against internal building works related to sub-divided units.

In parallel, with a view to regulate new sub-division works in a more comprehensive manner, we proposed to further include in the Minor Works Control System various types of works involved in sub-divided units other than internal drainage works which has already been covered by the system. This proposal would enhance the safety level of sub-divided units. Major items include erection or alteration of partition walls in buildings, addition or alteration of floor screeding in buildings, formation of openings to fire escape route, etc. The BD is now consulting the trade on the technical details. After confirming the details, the Government aims to submit the amended Building (Minor Works) Regulation to the Legislative Council for scrutiny in the first quarter of 2012.

On enforcement, in addition to the proactive handling of public's reports and complaints on sub-divided units, the BD has launched a special operation since April 1. A total of 150 target buildings will be inspected each year to inspect potential irregularities of building works associated with sub-divided units. It is estimated that over 1 300 sub-divided units will be inspected in the special operation each year. The BD will establish a database upon gathering of inspection cases with a view to drawing an overall picture of sub-divided units in different districts in Hong Kong. This will facilitate the BD to plan corresponding inspection and enforcement action.

We will also launch a large-scale public education programme to enhance the awareness of building owners not to carry out unauthorised works to sub-divide flat units. Potential tenants are encouraged to check the building conditions before deciding whether to rent the unit (for example, whether approval has been obtained for the building works).

"Sub-divided units present multi-faceted issues spanning across public and building safety, building management and housing aspects. DEVB and BD will continue to regulate sub-divided units from the building safety perspective," the spokesman said.

Ends/Thursday, June 16, 2011
Issued at HKT 20:56