LC Urgent Q1: Sub-division of flat units

     Following is a question by the Hon Priscilla Leung Mei-fun under Rule 24(4) of the Rules of Procedure and a reply by the Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrie Lam, in the Legislative Council today (June 22):


     In the early hours last Wednesday (June 15, 2011), a fire broke out in a tenement building with many flat units divided into separate units (commonly known as "sub-divided units") at 111 Ma Tau Wai Road in To Kwa Wan, which resulted in a tragedy with four people killed and 19 injured, and aroused widespread public concern about the fire safety problem of sub-divided units. There are a large number of such kind of old buildings with many sub-divided units in communities like To Kwa Wan, etc., and the fire escape facilities in such buildings are generally poor. To avoid the recurrence of such tragedies, will the Government inform this Council, given that the Secretary for Development indicated in reply to a question at the meeting of this Council on June 1 this year that the removal of all sub-divided units was uncalled for as not all such units were illegal and they might meet the housing needs of the grassroots, whether it will consider, in view of the fire at Ma Tau Wai Road, immediately adopting the mode similar to that of the Operation Building Bright to provide funding to owners in need to improve the fire safety facilities of sub-divided units in order to comply with the statutory requirements on fire safety, and immediately stepping up efforts in publicising knowledge of fire prevention among owners and tenants of sub-divided units, so as to safeguard public safety; if not, of the reason for that?



     The fire which broke out in an old building in Ma Tau Wai Road last week has caused heavy causalities. On behalf of the HKSAR Government, I would like to convey our deepest condolences to the casualties' families again. Although the issue of "sub-divided units" has been discussed by the Legislative Council (LegCo) for a number of times recently, I consider it necessary to start with a brief introduction, from the building control perspective, of the definition of "sub-divided units" and the potential problems that they may cause. "Sub-division of flat units", commonly known as "sub-divided units", in general refers to the sub-division of a flat unit into two or more individual units. The works usually involve knocking down of original non-structural partition walls, construction of new non-structural partition walls, installation of new toilets, alteration or addition of internal water pipes and drainage systems for the additional toilets, as well as raising of floor screeding to accommodate new/diverted pipes and drains, etc. If such works are not properly conducted, building safety and health may be affected including irregularities of means of escape caused by additional opening for doors, water seepage due to defective drainage works, and overloading due to excessive additional partition walls and thickening of floor screeding. Sub-divided units have been previously found in domestic units, but have recently also emerged in commercial/residential composite buildings and multi-storey industrial buildings. The situation has raised much concern.

     As I pointed out in my reply to another oral question on June 1, 2011, "sub-divided units" have revealed a very complicated problem which involves issues such as fire and building safety, building management and housing demand. In view of this, the Secretary for Security and Secretary for Home Affairs have joined me today to answer questions raised by Members. The Development Bureau consulted the Sub-committee on Building Safety and Related Issues established under the Panel on Development in July 2010 on the regulation of "sub-divided units". Members in general were of the view that totally banning "sub-divided units" was not a solution that could best meet the practical needs, but the Administration's primary objective must be to protect public safety, and it should tackle unauthorised "sub-divided units" and enhance the safety level of works concerned by a multi-pronged approach. We are proactively strengthening the inspection of and control over "sub-divided units" from the policy objective of building safety.  

     On legislation, we are gradually incorporating various types of works commonly involved in "sub-divided units" into an appropriate statutory control regime to require owners to carry out works through legal means so as to enhance the safety level of such works. The minor works control system (MWCS), fully implemented in the end of December 2010, has already designated internal drainage works within building units, commonly found in "sub-divided units", as minor works. Through a convenient and legal mechanism, members of public can carry out the works by engaging registered contractors. We have further proposed to include other works commonly found in "sub-divided units", such as erection of partition walls and addition of floor screeding, under the regulation of the MWCS. The Buildings Department (BD) is now consulting the industry on the technical details. We will expedite our work, and will endeavour to submit the amendment regulation to LegCo for scrutiny in the first quarter of 2012.

     As regards enforcement, the BD has been mounting a special operation against "sub-divided units" since April 1 this year to inspect suspected alteration works associated with "sub-divided units" to ascertain whether they comply with the planning, design and construction requirements in terms of fire safety (in particular the impact on means of escape) under the building regulations. The Department will take enforcement actions against irregularities. It is estimated that over 1 300 sub-divided flat units will be inspected in the special operation each year.

     The Hon Priscilla Leung suggests us to adopt the mode similar to that of the Operation Building Bright (OBB) to improve safety of "sub-divided units" through the provision of grants to persons concerned. I have serious reservation on this proposal. The OBB is a one-off special scheme, the major purpose of which is to enhance safety of common areas of old buildings, including the repair works of building structure and fire safety installations, but is not to subsidise owners the cost of repair of their individual units. Considering from the perspective of effective utilisation of public resources and fairness, it is not reasonable to subsidise the repair and alteration works for those owners who sub-divide individual units for lease or sale to make profit. Owners of "sub-divided units" bear the full responsibility to ensure that their own properties are not breaching the law. It is not appropriate to assist them to carry out repair works in a manner similar to the OBB.

     Nevertheless, our partner organisations and the BD have other regular schemes in place to assist owners in need. For example, if an owner needs to demolish unauthorised building works (UBWs) in his flat unit, the one-stop Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme administered by the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS) and Urban Renewal Authority could provide technical advice and interest-free loans to eligible owners for removal or rectification of irregularities within individual flat units, including works associated with "sub-divided units". The maximum amount of loan for this could be up to $50,000. Building owners could also apply to the BD for loans under the Building Safety Loan Scheme to enhance fire safety of buildings; to provide, upgrade and repair fire safety installations and facilities of buildings; and to remove UBWs. The amount of loan could be up to $1 million. In addition, the Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners, funded by the Government and administered by the HKHS, provides financial assistance up to $40,000 to eligible elderly owner-occupiers for the aforementioned works.

     A number of recent incidents involving UBWs and "sub-divided units" have revealed that public awareness on fire and building safety is still low. Therefore, I agree with the Hon Priscilla Leung's proposal to immediately enhance the promotion of fire prevention knowledge among owners and occupants of "sub-divided units". As a matter of fact, after the recent UBWs-related incidents, the BD has correspondingly adjusted the strategy of its large-scale publicity and public education campaign. It has strengthened the dissemination of the message to tackle the problem of UBWs. With a view to promoting fire prevention knowledge particularly for owners and occupants of "sub-divided units", the Department is updating a series of frequently asked questions including building safety requirements and points to note, and the same will be uploaded to its homepage shortly. The content provided by the 1823 Hotline will also be updated simultaneously. The Department will also arrange relevant bus body banner displays, newspaper supplements and radio promotion messages in the immediate future. These measures are to more widely publicise safety precautions related to subdivision of flat units, educate building owners not carry out unauthorised works to sub-divide flat units, and to advise potential tenants of "sub-divided units" to check the building conditions (e.g. whether approval has been obtained for the building works) before deciding whether to rent the units. The Fire Services Department (FSD) has also arranged to broadcast an announcement of public interests on ways of evacuation through televisions and radios shortly in order to enhance the ability to escape of members of the public in case of fire.

     To lower fire risks in old buildings in a more effective and comprehensive manner, the FSD introduced a "four-pronged" approach in 2008 for old buildings with higher potential fire risks in densely populated areas, such as To Kwa Wan, Yau Tsim Mong and Wan Chai, etc. The four prongs are:

(i) the Special Enforcement Unit (SEU) would step up inspections of old buildings and take law enforcement actions to eradicate potential fire hazards;

(ii) after inspections and follow-up actions by the SEU, the fire stations in the districts concerned would inspect the old buildings regularly and take appropriate enforcement action;

(iii) the "Building Fire Safety Envoy" of a building would also conduct inspections from time to time to ensure that there would no longer be such irregularities; and

(iv) District Fire Safety Committees (DFSCs), Fire Safety Ambassadors and prominent district personalities would be invited to promote fire safety in those old buildings.

     The Home Affairs Department and FSD will also make good use of district networks to enhance awareness on fire safety. At present, all 18 districts have established DFSCs to promote and publicise fire safety awareness, and educate people in the districts concerned on the importance of fire safety. DFSCs also from time to time carry out publicity and education programmes in collaboration with District Councils and other local organisations (such as owners' corporations, mutual aid committees and property management companies), so as to enhance the awareness of people in the districts concerned regarding fire safety and other relevant building safety matters.  

     Thank you, President.

Ends/Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Issued at HKT 18:15