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LCQ5: Fire safety of old buildings

     Following is a reply by the Acting Secretary for Security, Mr John Lee, to a question by the Hon Chan Han-pan in the Legislative Council today (March 20):


     Quite a number of owners of old buildings have received fire safety directions (directions) issued by the authorities under the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance, requiring them to improve the fire service facilities of their buildings by a certain deadline. However, for some buildings for which owners' corporations (OCs) have not been formed and with fragmented ownerships, the owners have difficulties in co-ordinating the relevant works; and for some buildings with OCs, such works cannot commence either for reasons such as divergent views among owners, the owners (most of them being indigent elderly) being unable to afford the relevant expenses, and a small number of owners refusing to share the expenses. These owners have difficulties in complying with the directions, and are liable to prosecution by the Government as a result.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the number of buildings which have not met the fire safety requirements at present; the number of such buildings the owners of which have been issued with the directions so far; among them, the respective numbers of tenement buildings of seven or less storeys, or old buildings aged 40 years or above; among such tenement buildings or old buildings, the respective numbers of buildings with and without OCs, as well as those having complied with the directions;

(b) of the number of prosecutions instituted by the authorities against the offenders since the implementation of the aforesaid Ordinance in 2007; among them, the number of cases involving tenement buildings or old buildings; whether the Government knows the reasons for non-compliance with the directions by the relevant parties, and whether the reasons include the absence of OCs to co-ordinate the relevant works, or the refusal by a small number of owners to share the expenses; if such reasons are included, and as the authorities will institute prosecutions against all owners of the buildings for non-compliance with the directions, whether they have examined if this is unfair to those owners who are willing to carry out improvement works; and

(c) regarding the cases in which the works cannot commence because of refusal of some owners to share the relevant expenses and the absence of OCs, what measures the authorities currently have to assist the owners concerned to comply with the directions; whether the Government will consider introducing any subsidy schemes similar to the "Operation Building Bright", so as to expeditiously improve the fire service facilities of buildings; if it will, of the specific arrangements; if not, the reasons for that; given the application of the aforesaid Ordinance to different types of composite buildings and domestic buildings of different ages and heights, etc., whether the authorities will consider amending the Ordinance, so as to exercise regulation for different types of buildings more appropriately?



     The Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap 572) (the Ordinance) came into operation in July 2007. The Ordinance stipulates that the fire safety of composite and domestic buildings constructed on or before March 1, 1987 should be enhanced to better meet the requirements of today. There are notable differences between the fire safety requirements at the time of the construction of those buildings and the modern standards. For instance, the commercial portions of the composite buildings were not required by law at that time to install automatic sprinkler systems. Enhancements are therefore necessary.

     The Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Buildings Department (BD) have been conducting joint inspections on target buildings by two phases. The first phase covers about 9 000 old composite buildings and the second phase covers about 3 000 old domestic buildings. The two departments will issue Fire Safety Directions (FS Directions) to owners and/or occupiers with regard to fire service installations and fire safety constructions in those buildings with a view to enhancing their basic fire protection measures. BD is the enforcement department on fire safety measures in terms of the planning, design and construction of buildings, while fire service installations and equipment fall under the purview of FSD.

(a) As at the end of February 2013, the two departments have jointly inspected 6 041 out of the 9 000 old composite buildings in Hong Kong. A total of 112 803 FS Directions were issued to owners and/or occupiers of 3 358 buildings out of those inspected.  Among the 3 358 buildings which have been issued FS Directions, 3 112 are 40 years' old or older; 1 393 have either owners' corporations (OCs) or are owned by a single owner. Among all FS Directions issued, 25 877 (i.e. 23%) have been complied with.

(b) If owners and/or occupiers fail to comply with a FS Direction without reasonable excuse, prosecution may be initiated against him/her.  As at the end of February 2013, a total of 38 prosecutions, involving 11 buildings, were initiated against building owners and/or occupiers or OCs who failed to do so. Among the buildings concerned, seven are 40 years old or more.

     The enforcement authorities normally give owners and/or occupiers a year to comply with the FS Directions. They may file an application to the enforcement authorities for extending the compliance period if more time is needed to prepare for and carry out the improvement works. The main reasons quoted in those applications are that more time is needed for discussion and raising funds for the improvement works, and that there is a plan to combine the fire safety improvement works with the major renovation works of the building, etc.

     The enforcement authorities would, without compromising basic fire safety, adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach in handling individual cases, for instance, by relaxing some of the requirements in a reasonable manner or accepting alternatives put forward by owners and/or occupiers or extending the compliance period of the FS Directions, etc. There are around 87 000 outstanding FS Directions, and 77% have been given an extension of the deadline from 1 year to 5 years, while the remaining 23% have not reached their deadlines yet.

     If owners and/or occupiers fail to comply with the FS Directions within a reasonable period or provide justifications to support the application for a time extension, the enforcement authorities have the responsibility to take enforcement actions under the Ordinance to ensure the fire safety of old buildings.  Relevant evidence and circumstances of each case, including follow up actions taken by individual owners and/or occupiers on the FS Directions, would be considered before prosecution action is initiated.

(c) Currently, the enforcement authorities would refer those buildings without OCs to the respective District Offices, which would assist them in establishing OCs so that the co-ordination of improvement works would be carried out more smoothly. The Home Affairs Department launched the Building Management Professional Advisory Scheme in 2011 in which property management companies are engaged to assist the relevant buildings in establishing OCs, applying for various building maintenance financial assistance and loan schemes, as well as following up the repair works and tender procedures, etc. The Hong Kong Housing Society also offers advice on the establishment of OCs together with a subsidy of up to $3,000.

     To assist owners of private buildings in conducting maintenance and repair of their buildings, BD, the Hong Kong Housing Society and Urban Renewal Authority have been operating various financial assistance schemes for property owners in need, including the Building Safety Loan Scheme, Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme and Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners.  Fire safety improvement works pertaining to the Ordinance have been incorporated into the list of works eligible for subsidies or loans under these schemes. The application procedures of these schemes have also been streamlined.  Owners may apply for multiple schemes by completing a set of application forms under the Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme.

     As for the scope of the Ordinance, we had taken into account the actual circumstances of the target buildings in drafting the Ordinance. Moreover, the enforcement authorities would, without compromising basic fire safety, adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach in handling individual cases. We understand the difficulties faced by the owners of these buildings in complying with the FS Directions. However, enhancing building fire safety is of paramount importance in terms of protecting lives and assets. Therefore, I hope that owners and residents of these old buildings would work together to comply with the FS Directions as soon as possible in order to ensure their own safety and that of their families.

Ends/Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Issued at HKT 15:35


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