Illegal land users in NT face tougher penalties

The Young Reporter (1994, December 19), 27(03), pp. 3.
Permanent URL - https://sys01.lib.hkbu.edu.hk/bujspa/purl.php?&did=bujspa0002101

The problem of illegal land use in New Territories has existed for a long time. Until now, the government is still working hard to solve it. Our reporters, WENDY MIU and SARA FUNG give an investigative report.

FARMLAND in the New Territories is no longer the wonderful land of our dreams in the past. Built-up areas are now found in every part of the New Territories. Even in the open spaces, what we find is only derelict vehicles, unwanted construction materials and container boxes.

The reason is that farmers have abandoned their farmlands and let the tenants convert the ponds into warehouses and change the fields into car parks.

The adverse impact of this unauthorised development is self-evident. Affected by flooding, air pollution and rivers contamination, beautiful land is turned into an eyesore.

The government has been well aware of the problem and has made efforts to tackle the illegal use of land.

In 1991, the Town Planning Ordinance was drafted by the government. According to the Ordinance, a person who violates the government-planned land use is liable to a fine of $100,000 and a fine of $10,000 for each day during which the offence is proved to have continued.

This law has sparked off controversial debate among different sectors. Mr Chow Chun-kit, ex-Chief Town Planner of Central Enforcement and Prosecution section, regarded the fine as a rent for the violators rather than a punishment.

He explained that last year the maximum fine of a case was only $150,000 but the owner of an illegal converted car park can earn over a hundred millions in a year.

However, some of the illegal land tenant accused the government of killing their legal business, and they thought that a $10,000 fine was too much as it gave them a tremendous blow to their business.

No matter how controversial it is, the government is still going to toughen its policy. Mr Lee Tak-kiu, Chief Town Planner of the Central Enforcement and Prosecution section, said that there would be a skyrocketing increase of the fine this year.

Though he refused to disclose the exact amount of money an illegal user has to pay once he gets caught, Mr Lee assured that “it will be quite big bucks” .

A woman who runs a car stripping company in Kam Tin said, “The government just wants to get more money by toughening the law, it has no itention [i.e. intention] of solving the fundamental problem.”

The woman said emphatically that it was impossible for her to close the business because the car stripping parkwas the pillar of her income.

“My worst possible solution to the new policy is to relocate my business,” she said. “Maybe we will move to the north eastern part of the New Trritories [i.e. Territories].”

She criticised the existing regulation as unfair.

According to the Town Planning (Amendment) Ordinance in 1991, those who converted farmland into other land uses before 1991 are regarded as existing land use” and will not be liable to heavy fines, while those who converted after 1991 are known as “unauthorised land use” and are subjected to heavy punishment.

“But we are running the. same business, why does the government punishs us but not others,” she grumbled.

Mr Lee Tak-keung, however, explained that when the department suggested increasing the fines for illegal land use, they consulted many people and the change of the policy just reflected the demand of the public.

“In fact, we had suggested tackling the problem by increasing the maximum fine to $500,000 and six months imprisonment in 1991. But we abandoned this proposal because of tremendous disagreement from society,” he said.

“Stern punishment is not the sole solution to the problem, but it helps to alleviate it,” Mr Lee emphasised.

He supported his argument with figures.

In 1991 to 1994, the Town Planning Department brought 57 cases to court, among them 46 cases were successfully convicted and 79 illegal land users pledged guilty. In 1993, the department discovered 173 cases and a container trader paid the maximum fine of $150,000.

Mr Lee described the illegal land users as “law-abiding” because about 18 per cent of the illegal land users stopped their business after they had received the first warning. “In this sense, the punishment is quite effective.”

However, Mr Fung Chi-wood, a Legco member from the Democratic Party, regarded the increasing of fines as unnecessary. “The crux of the problem is the implementation of the law, not the amount of fine,” he explained.

“Though the regulations in the 1991 Town Planning Ordinance were strict, the implementation was loose.” He criticised the new policy as short-sighted and thought that it would not help to solve the problems.

Mr Fung on the other hand thinks that the suggestion of imprisonment is feasible. “Compared with increasing fines, I think imprisonment can really deter the illegal land users.”

However, the landowners and the tenants who get huge benefits from converting the land use would definitely oppose the suggestion of imprisonment.

Mr Fung said that the landowners and the tenants just wanted to maintain their interest in the New Territories

“The members of the Heung Yee Kuk always think that if the government wants to tackle the land use abuse, it must compensate for their loss.”

Mr Fung continued, “The landowners and tenants have already got enough profit from engaging in illegal practices, there is no need for the government to compensate them.”

Mr Fung considers land abuse in the New Territories a complicated problem and it needs different sectors of the departments to join together to solve it. He doubts whether the increasing of fines can solve the problem.

“I suspect the government will not implement the new policy strictly because of the shortage of labour. Maybe there will only be one or two cases to be brought to the court with maximum fine,” said Mr Fung.

Mr Lee denied the suggestions that they suffered from labour shortage. But he admitted that there should have 90 people to fill posts, including surveyors, artists and clerks, and the department now has only 49 employees.

“The labour force is intense and one surveyor has to do many jobs at the same time. But I don’t think it will affect the quality of our work,” Mr Lee said emphatically.

Concerning the problem of illegal land abuse, both Mr Lee and Mr Fung agreed that the long term solution was to increase the supply of land by the Land Department.

  • Farmlands in the New Territories are used as abandoned car park.
  • Landowners get huge profits from converting land use.