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Tuesday, September 13, 2016, 17:35

Lands Dept slammed over lax enforcement

By Willa Wu

Lands Dept slammed over lax enforcement
This general view shows a land site which was auctioned by the Hong Kong gov t on Sept 6, 2011. ( AFP PHOTO / LAURENT FIEVET)

HONG KONG – The government watchdog on Tuesday lashed out at the Lands Department, saying that its inaction over illegal occupation of government land and breach of lease have incited more such unlawful behavior.

The Office of the Ombudsman, in its direct investigation, noted clear inadequacies in the department’s policy against illegal occupation of government land and breach of lease conditions.

The department’s practice allows illegal occupiers of government land and landowners in beach of the lease conditions to legalize their behavior by two ways – by applying for short-term tenancy or short-term waiver of lease conditions. In both cases, the department will suspend its enforcement actions against the unauthorized behavior of land users.

In one case, a government lot was illegally occupied for nearly two decades while the government did not receive any rent. The land was occupied to serve as a tea house and the occupant sought to apply for the short-term tenancy in 1995. The application was approved conditionally despite neighbors’ objections. Despite the village house changing hands, the tea house continued in operation with a new owner until in 2014.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said the Lands Department has been citing constraints on resources as reasons for its reluctance to conduct regular inspections over land use.

Currently, the department will act on public complaints or referrals from other departments.

What’s more, the ombudsman said, the department will not impose any penalty or fine upon unauthorized behavior. No charges are levied for applying the short-term tenancy or short-term waiver of lease conditions to stall or circumvent the regulations, allowing illegal occupants or land users to continue to profit from their illegal actions.

Statistics show that the department took almost four years to approve one short-term tenancy application in 2012, and about four and a half years to reject another such application. It took on average 14 months to grant permission for such an application.

Similar findings are detected in processing applications of short-term waiver of lease conditions.

The department, in its response, said it has limited resources, but it stressed that it has taken several remedial actions through self-initiated inspections and stepped-up enforcement actions. The department also promised to cancel its practice of suspending enforcement actions when processing the two applications.

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