Government committed to tackling building safety problems of subdivided flats

The Government is implementing a series of measures covering legislation, enforcement, assistance to owners in need as well as publicity and public education to tackle the building safety problems of subdivided flats.

A spokesman for the Development Bureau (DEVB) said today (May 2) that on the legislative front, the DEVB proposes to include several types of works associated with subdivided flats under the Minor Works Control System (MWCS), so as to strengthen the control of common flat subdivision works. The proposals will be effected through the Building (Minor Works) (Amendment) Regulation 2012, which will be gazetted on Friday (May 4).

Under the proposed legislative amendment, the following types of works will become designated minor works items:

* formation of or alteration to door openings in the common parts of buildings (including escape staircases);
* installation of non-load bearing block walls in flats; and
* thickening of floors slabs in a flat using solid screeding.

In addition to the above types of works, the DEVB also proposes to introduce a new minor works item to regulate subdivided flats with three or more rooms that are each provided with lavatories or other sanitary fitments. The item is proposed in response to the fact that contraventions of the Buildings Ordinance (Cap 123) are more common in subdivided flats with complex designs and layouts.

Following the gazettal on May 4, the subsidiary legislation will be tabled at the Legislative Council (LegCo) for negative vetting on May 9. Subject to scrutiny by LegCo, it is expected that the subsidiary legislation will come into effect on October 3, 2012.

Under the requirements of the MWCS, all Registered General Building Contractors and those Registered Minor Works Contractors who have registered for the relevant class and type of minor works will be qualified to carry out the new items without any further registration. Registered contractors and industry practitioners who do not fall into the above two categories can submit their applications to register for the new minor works items to the Buildings Department (BD) once the scrutiny of the proposed subsidiary legislation is completed. Those wishing to carry out the types of works concerned under the simplified requirements of the MWCS may do so upon the commencement of the subsidiary legislation.

The spokesman said that most of the minor works items proposed to be added are currently exempted works under the Buildings Ordinance, meaning that such works may commence without obtaining the Building Authority's prior approval of the relevant plans and consent to the commencement of works. The works are also not required to be designed, supervised and carried out by qualified professionals and contractors. That said, the works still have to comply with the relevant requirements of the Buildings Ordinance, such as the requirements that the works should not overload or affect the fire escape of the building. By including the works in the MWCS, owners will have to hire qualified prescribed building professionals and/or prescribed registered contractors to design, supervise and carry out the works in accordance with the simplified requirements of the MWCS. The new arrangement will thus be able to ensure the quality of works associated with subdivided flats at source.

In addition to requiring the works to be carried out by qualified professionals and contractors, the BD will also be conducting audit checks on completed minor works, so as to minimise the chance that the works will result in an improper subdivided flat.  Moreover, with the relevant minor works submissions, the BD will be able to maintain a database that contains the number and whereabouts of such works to facilitate effective monitoring and allow the BD to take appropriate enforcement action as necessary.

On the enforcement front, the BD will further strengthen its inspection of subdivided flats this year and significantly increase the relevant enforcement targets in order to handle the building safety problems involved.

The spokesman said that additional resources were provided to the BD last year for launching a large scale operation on subdivided flats. The target of the operation was to inspect the subdivided flats in 150 buildings every year, and to take enforcement action against the irregularities therein. During the nine-month period from April to December 2011, the BD inspected 116 buildings, involving over 800 subdivided flats. So far, the BD has issued 205 statutory orders and nearly 800 advisory letters with respect to the irregularities found in the subdivided flats of those 116 buildings.

To further strengthen the enforcement operation, the BD has once again been provided with additional resources in the current year, allowing the department to increase the number of target buildings to 200 each year. Furthermore, taking into account the fire risk that hawker stalls may pose to adjacent buildings, the BD has adjusted its strategy for enforcement action. The BD will, through staff redeployment, conduct a one-off special operation in 2012 to focus on the inspection of subdivided flats in old buildings situated in the vicinity of hawker stalls. Together with the BD's plan to take enforcement action in 30 industrial buildings suspected to have subdivided flats in 2012, it is expected that the Department will be able to complete the inspection of 370 buildings this year.

Meanwhile, the BD has enhanced its efforts to educate the public about the common irregularities found in flat subdivision works, as well as the potential risks associated with such works, through a variety of channels including the Internet, newspaper supplements, announcements in the public interest aired on television and radio channels, advertisements on public transports, etc. To dovetail the implementation of the Building (Minor Works) (Amendment) Regulation 2012, the BD will mount a fresh round of publicity and public education campaigning.  After the amendment regulation takes effect, members of the public could also contact the BD through its hotline for enquiries on details of the new minor works items.

Separately, the BD, the Hong Kong Housing Society and the Urban Renewal Authority also have in place various financial and technical assistance schemes (namely the Comprehensive Building Safety Improvement Loan Scheme, the Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme and the Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners) to offer assistance to owners in need for repairing their properties, including the rectification of irregularities in flat subdivision works.

"Owners have the responsibility to upkeep the safety of the interior of their properties. The Administration thus calls on all owners who have already subdivided their flats or are intending to do so to seek professional advice. This will ensure that any existing works or works to be carried out will be able to comply with the relevant requirements and serve to protect their own and other occupants' safety," the spokesman stressed.

Ends/Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Issued at HKT 19:18