Following is a question by the Hon Kenneth Chan and a reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (October 15):
On August 14 this year, a big tree collapsed from a slope inside a private residential estate at Robinson Road and fell onto a footpath, crushing a passing pregnant woman to death. Subsequently, quite a number of tree experts urged the Government to expeditiously enact legislation on trees and improve its tree management policy. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) apart from reminding property owners and management companies of private residential estates of their responsibility for proper maintenance of the trees within their estates and disseminating relevant information to them by issuing letters and organising seminars, whether the authorities have specific measures at present to help them carry out tree maintenance work; if they do, of the details; if not, whether the authorities will consider formulating such measures immediately; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;
(2) whether it has improved tree management work in the light of the aforesaid tree collapse incident; if it has, of the latest progress and details; if not, whether the authorities will consider taking follow-up actions; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and
(3) given that the former Secretary for Development indicated in June 2011 that she would seriously consider commencing studies on enacting legislation on trees, of the latest progress of such initiative, as well as the work plan and timetable for the legislative work; if it does not have such work plan and timetable, of the reasons for that?
We are saddened by the tragic incident that occurred on August 14 in which a tree in a private housing estate at Robinson Road collapsed and killed a pregnant woman. We understand the public's worries about the risks posed by problematic trees and concerns about the quality of tree management on private land.
Hong Kong has a rich trove of trees, many of them have become mature and even aged. Trees, like all other living organisms, have a natural cycle. They grow, age, become weak and die. Their growth and conditions are subject to changes over time and environmental factors. To better protect public safety, the Tree Management Office (TMO) introduced a new Tree Risk Assessment (TRA) arrangement in 2010, which was formulated with reference to internationally accepted practices. The objective is to minimise the risk of tree failure in particular at locations with high pedestrian and vehicular flow.
Tree management is a profession and appropriate tree maintenance services should be provided by personnel with relevant qualifications and training. However, modern and professional tree management is still at an early stage of development in Hong Kong. For instance, there were less than 10 certified arborists in 2005. As such, raising professional standard of tree management and enhancing capacity building for tree management personnel are the key areas of work of the TMO.
My reply to the Hon Kenneth Chan's question is as follows :
(1) and (2) Private property owners are responsible for the proper maintenance and management of the assets, equipment and facilities, including trees, on their property. We call upon and write to private property owners and management companies to engage professional contractors to inspect trees on their properties and carry out appropriate risk mitigation measures as required to protect public safety.
The TMO organises seminars on tree maintenance for private property owners, property managers and the general public every year. The TMO publicises the responsibility for and the importance of tree maintenance, and encourage the public to report on problematic trees by various means such as issuing newsletters, advertorials, television and radio broadcasts, video clips, leaflets and websites.
Following the above-mentioned tree collapse incident, officers of the TMO immediately arrived at the scene to make investigation and collect wood sample for further analysis. The TMO also dispatched staff to inspect the roadside trees in Central and Western District, and referred problematic trees identified to relevant departments and to the private property owners concerned through the Lands Department for immediate follow-up action.
The TMO also reminded the tree management departments and schools immediately to step up inspection of trees, and to be particularly vigilant in times of inclement weather and heavy rainstorm. It also strives to ensure that referrals of problematic trees received from the general public are handled expeditiously.
The TMO collaborated with the Home Affairs Department in organising seminars on tree management on private property across the territory from late August to September this year to explain to the owners in detail the key issues in tree management and their related responsibilities.
The TMO created in August this year a column on "Information about tree maintenance for private properties" on its Trees website (www.trees.gov.hk) to provide information on the management and maintenance of trees on private properties including video clips of seminars, information on contractors and relevant professional personnel and institutes for easy reference of the public.
The TMO held a meeting on August 23 with the representatives from various arboriculture-related professional organisations and training institutions to discuss issues of manpower and qualification. All parties would work closely together to provide systematic training for tree management personnel of all levels and to raise the qualification requirements and professionalism of the industry.
The government had raised various requirements for tree management work contractors so as to raise the quality of services. Based on previous experience, we have also enhanced the TRA guidelines to better protect public safety.
(3) Several years ago the Administration received proposals on tree legislation and considered that relevant legislations, technical guidelines and measures on tree preservation were already in place. As for the trees on private land, their management required personnel with professional qualifications and experience. But such personnel were in shortage and their training took time. It was difficult to implement the proposed legislation requirements. Some stakeholders also took the view that the Government should not interfere with the management of private property. As such, the Administration considered that it was not an opportune time to enact such a legislation then.
One of the prerequisites for the enactment of an ordinance on tree management is the adequate supply of qualified personnel with relevant experience to implement the required tree inspection and maintenance works. Therefore it has been the TMO's focus in the past few years to systematically train up tree management personnel at different levels, standardising professional requirement and raising professional requirements. New programmes launched recently included advanced diploma and professional diploma by post-secondary education institutes. While there has been an increase in the supply of personnel in recent years, the supply of experienced or adequately trained personnel is still in shortage.
In addition, the TMO has also been focusing on promulgating guidelines, best practices and conducting researches since its establishment. We have issued guidelines on tree selection, proper planting practices, pruning, transplanting, stonewall tree management, tree maintenance to reduce tree risk, tree risk assessment and brown root rot and so on. These were publicised to the industry and the public through webpages and seminars.
As revealed in the feedback from a recent seminar on tree management for private properties, the private property owners and property management companies are primarily concerned with the following issues: their responsibilities in tree management; selection of suitable contractors and professionals; and guidelines on tree maintenance. The Administration will therefore continue to strive to improve the existing system and arrangements on publicity promotion, education, guideline promulgation and information dissemination.
Overseas experience shows that the "tree ordinance" of many overseas countries or areas are focused on the preservation of old and valuable trees, or protection of trees during development. Most countries or areas do not have any specific legislation that imposes mandatory requirements on when and how the private property owners should maintain their trees or regulates the qualification requirements of tree inspectors.
The introduction of TRA and management arrangements by the TMO in 2010 has strained the supply of local tree management personnel. It is estimated to take several years before the shortage situation eased. Moreover, we should be cautious on the enactment of an ordinance on tree management, as there will be significant impact on hundreds of thousands of private property owners. To protect public safety, it is crucial to ensure that the general public understands the importance of tree care and the risks of casualty and property damage posed by dangerous trees, and subsequent liability. That said, the measures for public education, enhanced provision of information to property owners, community surveillance, and continuation of training for professionals are crucial and can be promptly implemented.
The Administration keeps a prudent and open attitude about enacting the proposed legislation on mandatory inspection of trees on private properties in the medium to long run. We are actively engaging in discussion with the stakeholders.
Ends/Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Issued at HKT 19:33