【明報專訊】THE Lands Department showed its mettle yesterday, taking back a piece of land at Shui Mong Tin in Ma Shi Chau that had been illegally turned into a columbarium, and started demolishing the unauthorised building works on another piece of government land, which had long been occupied by Tai Tong Lychee Valley, Yuen Long. The government, evidently acting in response to the report of the Director of Audit, has taken a positive step.
In handling the Ma Shi Chau columbarium case, the government has shown a toughness not much seen before. The site of the columbarium should, as stipulated in the government lease, have been used for agricultural purposes. However, it was "developed" into a columbarium with about 3,000 niches, and the developer then submitted an application for changing the land use, which the authorities turned down. As there is a shortage of columbaria in Hong Kong, a niche in a private columbarium is often sold for tens of thousands of dollars. If the Ma Shi Chau columbarium developer's "taking action before seeking permission" policy had worked, the columbarium could become a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Many would be sure to follow suit, and private columbaria would mushroom in the New Territories.
The Ma Shi Chau columbarium site was originally privately owned, and the government has in fact confiscated it by "taking it back". The owner may bring the case to court if he feels unhappy about this. The government, however, has shown its determination to nip a problem in the bud before it progresses to a full-blown disorder. Timely action is necessary if the government is to deal with violations of land use restrictions, or things will become worse and get out of hand.
Tai Tong Lychee Valley's illegal occupation of government land in the New Territories had lasted as many as 18 years, starting in the pre-1997 days when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule. The case shows very clearly the total disregard of the law on the part of some New Territories residents, and the government's failure to apply the law. The government did not take any resolute action until the illegal occupation was exposed by the Director of Audit and widely covered by the media. Yesterday, lands officers together with contractors' workers went to Lychee Valley to pull down the unauthorised building works on government land.
And yesterday some people armed with sticks and spades stationed themselves at the entrance to Lychee Valley, saying that they would not allow any demolition work. However, they did not intervene or resort to violence when the officers and workers started work. After all, Hong Kong is governed by the rule of law. As long as the government, suitably backed up by the police, is determined to take action which even though challenged is in strict accordance with the law, no bluffing challengers can make a stand. Those opposed to a government acting legally and reasonably must be prepared to pay if they do anything rash and irrational.
From 2008 to 2010, a total of 26 prosecutions were made by the Lands Department concerning the illegal occupation of government land, which resulted in 21 convictions carrying fines that, added together, amounted to $81,900, with the imposition of the maximum fine of $10,000 in two cases. This $10,000 maximum has never been adjusted since 1972, and is so low that it can have no deterrent effect. The fine must therefore be greatly increased. We believe that, in addition to the imposition of heavier penalties, the government should also clearly define its goals towards the New Territories in order to rectify step by step the widespread violation of land use regulations and solve the problem of unauthorised building works in village houses.