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They’ve all got to come down

South China Morning Post – 14 June 2011

Development secretary Carrie Lam meets the Heung Yee Kuk and says that extra storeys added illegally to village houses will have to be demolished

Extra storeys added illegally to village houses in the New Territories must come down, the government said yesterday.

After a meeting with powerful rural affairs body the Heung Yee Kuk, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the secretary for development, said immediate enforecement action would be taken against serious breaches.

She announced the decision following negotiations with more than 30 kuk representatives.

The meeting came weeks after the Ombudsman criticised the government for enforcing the law more vigorously in urban areas than in rural ones.

“We will take immediate enforcement action on village houses with serious breaches, such as those with one, two or even three extra storeys … This means the extra storeys will have to be demolished,” the minister said. The kuk said that glasshouses covering more than half a rooftop would fall into this category.

“Our proposal is in no way an amnesty, or allowing cash payment in place of law enforcement,” she said — a direct response to previous suggestions by some kuk members.

Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, for the first time, agreed to a crackdown on extra storeys, which are commonplace across the New Territories. But he was quick to raise a condition: that only the 36,000 so-called small houses built after 1972 should be covered. “Village houses built on land under the Block Government Leases involve complicated legal and personal considerations and needs a further study,” Lau said.

He was referring to plots of land surveyed by the British government in 1905 after it occupied the New Territories. Officials mapped all the lots and reflected the land use at that time, such as for housing or for agriculture. The findings were attached to a Block Government Lease. House lots of such leases apply to 10 to 20 per cent of village houses, according to Raymond Chan Yuk-ming, a spokesman for the Institute of Surveyors.

Lau argued that the century-old lease of “house lots” had stipulated no height limits for buildings, and that neither the small-house law nor the urban building regulation should apply. However, the small-house policy, enacted in 1972 to compensate villagers who gave up their land to new-town development, has required all village houses to be limited to three storeys built on a plot no larger than 700 square feet in order to be exempt from urban building regulations, which require work and occupation permits.

“We don’t expect an across-the-board prosecution,” Lau said, “and we hope there will be a legal clarification.” But Lam said the government disagreed with the kuk. “Before the clarification, we stand firm that [all village houses] are subject to control.”

Barrister and Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah said he saw no grounds for a particular category of village houses to escape control, noting that the small-house law had been tailor-made to respect villagers’ lifestyles.

The government said less serious violations would be set aside for a later date because there were so many of them. Lam did not give details, but the kuk expected that glasshouses occupying less than half the rooftop area should fall into this category. It said enforcement should be deferred for 10 years and come with a registration system. Both sides agreed that environmentally friendly additions and amenities, such as a solar-powered water heater, a rooftop security gate and a small canopy over the main door, would be allowed in existing and future houses.

Top government officials – including Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen – have been accused of having illegal extensions at their properties.

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