The building concerned had been served with a statutory inspection order in 2014 but, nine years later, this had yet to result in any remedial works.

Of some 7,000 buildings served with such orders, in 4,000 cases, the inspections had yet to be completed. Of the 1,161 subsidy grants approved by the Urban Renewal Authority for improvements to be carried out, works had been completed in only 110.
Meanwhile, an NGO Liber Research Community said it had identified 173 luxury homes illegally occupying government land.


Timely follow-up action is clearly a challenge. By chance, an investigation revealed that one of couples involved in the Redhill case are also linked to ownership of a Tuen Mun property which was the subject of court action in August 2019 for ignoring removal orders issued in 2017. The illegal structures are still there. Clearly, the fine of HK$24,900 in 2019 was not a sufficient deterrent. Hardly surprising: it is less than one night’s rent for the property, quoted on Airbnb.
The question arises as to which parties should be held responsible for enforcement action. Most of the emphasis has been on the property owners, but is it sufficient? Linn specifically mentioned authorised people and those who conducted property transactions (presumably agents and solicitors). To that list I would add registered contractors.
Some of the works at issue appeared extensive, including digging two floors down to create a basement. Many will remember the case of chief executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen’s massive basement. Works on this scale are way beyond the competence of a local handyman. They require temporary shoring-up works during construction and a fleet of vehicles to remove excavated soil.

However informally, detailed plans must have been drawn up by a qualified professional and then implemented by an experienced contractor. One gets the feeling that such people have, up to now, largely been let off the hook. It is good that Linn proposes to include them in the net in future.

She defended the government’s performance on dealing with unauthorised building works, saying priority had been given to those cases deemed to carry the greatest risk. She even went so far as to say “nobody” was at fault.


That may be a stretch but, in fairness to Linn, perhaps we should read it as “given the scale of the problem, and the resources available, we did the best we could”. However, it still begs the question of what priority is given to the subject and also what resources are being allocated to deal with it.

Today’s situation is the result of decades of neglect. Generations of ministers – and, before them, civil servants – have simply been overwhelmed by the propensity of Hongkongers to improve their living space in a variety of ways, large and small.


Tolerance of minor infractions may seem reasonable at the time in individual cases but we have reached the point where the government’s enforcement measures have zero credibility. There are unauthorised works everywhere and we can see them every day. And that is dangerous.

Villa Cornwall at 85 Castle Peak Road in Tuen Mun. The owner, who was fined for ignoring the removal orders issued by the Buildings Department in November 2017 for illegal structures, is also linked to one of the houses found with illegal structures at Redhill Peninsula in Tai Tam. Photo: May Tse

What to do? Professor Ho Lok-sang of Lingnan University has floated the idea of establishing a route to the legalisation of unauthorised works that do not present a danger. The basic principle seems reasonable but implementation would be fraught with difficulties.


Would owners be prepared to hire structural engineers and architects in every case to attest to safety? Perhaps where the works are extensive. Who would assess the penalties, and on what basis? Where government land has been illegally occupied for decades, would the sum take into account the length of time involved, and would interest be included? And how fierce does the administration want to be in dealing with millions of (mostly) trivial infringements?

These are important questions. While we fumble our way to a pragmatic overall solution, a good place to start might be to restore credibility to enforcement – say, a high-profile case of blatant infringement, with the owner, the authorised person and the contractor side by side in the dock. Just an idea.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises