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LC Urgent Q3: Sub-divided units

     Following is a question by the Hon Wong Yuk-man 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 (December 7):


     In the early hours of last Wednesday (November 30), a fire broke out at the Fa Yuen Street hawker stalls and spread to the nearby buildings with flat units divided into separate units (commonly known as "sub-divided units"), resulting in a tragedy with at least nine people killed and 34 injured. A fire broke out at the same location on December 6, last year, and an explosion involving sub-divided units also occurred at Tung Choi Street last Tuesday. In recent years, similar incidents occurred quite frequently, threatening the lives and properties of residents in sub-divided units and hawker stall owners. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that the Development Bureau pointed out in June this year that it had thus far been unable to ascertain the number of sub-divided units across the territory, whether the authorities will immediately deploy manpower to inspect all old-style residential buildings and record the locations of all sub-divided units and particulars of their tenants, so as to offer assistance to tenants of sub-divided units;

(b) given that the Chief Executive has pointed out in this year's Policy Address that sub-divided units provide accommodation for low-income people not eligible for public housing, and he does not wish to ban sub-divided units across the board, whether the Housing Department will immediately revise the public housing allocation system to enable existing tenants of sub-divided units to be allocated public housing more expeditiously; and

(c) given that quite a number of hawker stall owners there have divided their stalls into sub-divided stalls for lease, and this type of sub-divided stalls are so closely packed together that they not only block the fire escapes but also cause a fire to get out of control more easily, and yet so far no one has been prosecuted for this, whether such division of stalls breaches the law; and if so, whether the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department will step up its inspection and enforcement efforts, and institute prosecution in respect of the non-compliance cases?


     The fire at Fa Yuen Street which has caused heavy casualties, was peculiar in that it originated from the hawker stalls in front of the buildings.  For general building designs, there should be a separation of at least six meters between the window of a fire escape staircase and the building facing it so as to reduce the risk of fire spreading from the opposite building.  In this incident, although the buildings on the two sides of Fa Yuen Street are more than six meters apart, it is obvious that the affected buildings have much less than six meters in distance from the stalls in front of them.  This has brought about potential fire risk.
     The Buildings Department (BD) entered the building that was affected by the fire most, i.e. 192 to 194 Fa Yuen Street, to conduct an inspection after the fire and it was found that in the 14 residential units of the building, seven of them were sub-divided and it was estimated that there were more than 20 sub-divided units in total.  We cannot ascertain at the moment whether these sub-divided units have aggravated the casualties in this incident as this should only be known after detailed investigation and taking of statements.  Nevertheless, undeniably the existence of sub-divided units would generally increase the risk for the occupants during fire, such as when some sub-divided units block the rear staircase of a double staircase building and hence leaving some of the occupants with only one of the staircases to escape instead of both during fire.  The same situation also applies to 192 to 194 Fa Yuen Street.
     The emergence of and increase in sub-divided units is indeed a social phenomenon that has aroused public concern.  As pointed out by the Members, the issue of sub-divided units is multi-faceted, involving issues such as fire and building safety, building management and housing demand.  
      From building safety angle, sub-divided units will generally contravene the Buildings Ordinance (BO) in only three manners - the obstruction of means of fire escape, overloading that affects the structural safety of a building and the resulting serious water seepage.  The work of the Development Bureau is to ensure that these sub-divided units would not result in building safety problems.  We are now tackling the building safety problems associated with sub-divided units through the four prongs of legislation, enforcement, assistance to owners as well as publicity and public education.  
     The reply to the three-part question after consolidating the information from relevant policy bureaux and departments is as follows:

(a) The BD currently does not have specific statistical breakdown of applications for works of sub-divided units and hence could not provide information on legally or illegally altered sub-divided units in different districts in Hong Kong.  Indeed, the existing BO does not specifically categorise or regulate different types of works involved in sub-divided units.  Nevertheless, with the full implementation of the Minor Works Control System (MWCS) on December 31, 2010, internal drainage works commonly found in sub-divided units have already been covered by the MWCS.  Contractors who carry out such works have to submit relevant information of the works to the BD.  However, not all the cases of internal drainage works involve sub-divided units.  Although the BD is currently conducting a stock-taking exercise for all the unauthorised building works at the exterior of private buildings in Hong Kong, it will be difficult to verify the situation of interior sub-divided units during the exercise.  As a result, this operation will not enable us to provide comprehensive information on sub-divided units.
     As I have, for some time in the past, pointed out during the Panel meetings of the Legislative Council and in response to the oral and written questions from the Members, the BD has since April 2011 commenced a Large Scale Operation against sub-divided units, and has set a target of inspecting 150 buildings with sub-divided units in the current year.  In response to the fire, I announced after my inspection of the scene last Saturday that the BD would adjust the strategy of its enforcement action by taking into account the fire risk that might be brought about by hawker stalls when choosing the target buildings.  The buildings that the Department chooses will be those situated in the vicinity of hawker stalls, as well as those that are of the same type as the building at 192 to 194 Fa Yuen Street, i.e. double staircase buildings of 6 to 12 storeys in height.  It is estimated that there are around 334 such buildings over the territory, which are distributed in the Kowloon City District, Yau Tsim Mong District, Sham Shui Po District, Central and Western District, Wan Chan District and Eastern District.  The BD will endeavour to complete the inspection of this category of buildings within the coming six months.  The focus of the inspection will be on whether there is a blockage of means of escape as a result of sub-divided units or other alterations.  During the course of inspection, the BD will immediately issue removal orders once they have collected sufficient evidence.  If the owner refuses to co-operate and allow BD to enter the premises for investigations, we will not rule out the possibility of exercising the power given to the Department by the current BO, and breaking into the premises in the presence of the police to carry out the investigations.  We hope that through this enforcement action, we will be able to promptly attend to the building safety problems arising from the special properties of hawker stalls and the potential risks posed by sub-divided units, so as to ensure the safety of the residents.

     If, during the current round of inspection of buildings in areas with hawker stalls, it comes to the BD's knowledge that some owners or residents of sub-divided units are in need of assistance, the Department will refer the case to the relevant departments or organisations for follow-up action as necessary.  The BD will also provide all possible assistance under its purview.  For example, the Department currently has a Comprehensive Building Safety Improvement Loan Scheme.  If the owners who have received the removal orders from the BD encounter financial difficulties, they can apply for a loan from the BD to carry out the associated improvement works.  Under the scheme, applicants will not be required to go through any means test and can receive a maximum loan of one million dollars.

(b) According to the Transport and Housing Bureau, public rental housing (PRH) is a limited and valuable resource, and the Administration has to allocate it in a fair and rational manner to address the genuine housing needs of low-income families who cannot afford private rental accommodation.  The Hong Kong Housing Authority maintains a PRH Waiting List (WL) to allocate PRH to eligible applicants in accordance with their date of registration, size of family and choice of district, etc.  The Housing Department (HD) appreciates the housing needs of occupants residing in sub-divided flats and will process their PRH applications in accordance with the existing allocation policy.  For occupants who have special housing needs, they may consider applying for Compassionate Rehousing (CR) from the Social Welfare Department (SWD).  The HD will arrange the rehousing of occupants to PRH after they have obtained SWD's recommendation for CR.  As for the suggestion of according priority to offer PRH flats to applicants who have been living in sub-divided flats, the Administration needs to avoid being unfair to the over 155 000 applicants currently on the WL and beware of such an arrangement would lead to other issues, such as in effect encouraging people to move into sub-divided flats which would worsen the problem.

(c) The Food and Health Bureau points out that, according to section 13 of the Hawker Regulation (Cap. 132AI), except with the consent in writing of the Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene, no hawker shall sublet, transfer or lend any stall or transfer his licence or pitch card, if any, to any other person.  Besides, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has so far instituted a total of 70 prosecutions this year against stalls selling commodities which they are not permitted to sell or operating services which they are not permitted to operate.  Some of these cases involve stall subletting.  After the fire at Fa Yuen Street on November 30, 2011, FEHD has strengthened enforcement involving irregularities found in the hawker bazaar in Fa Yuen Street and all other hawker bazaars in the territory.  Subletting is among these irregularities.  If stall subletting is substantiated, FEHD will enforce the regulations strictly.  FEHD appeals to members of the public to report immediately to it any suspected stall subletting and FEHD will carry out follow-up investigations accordingly.
     Thank you, President.

Ends/Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Issued at HKT 19:38


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