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LCQ5: Fire safety improvement works for old buildings
     Following is a question by the Hon Starry Lee and a reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, in the Legislative Council today (June 14):


     In recent years, the enforcement authorities under the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (i.e. the Director of Buildings and the Director of Fire Services) have issued, under that Ordinance, Fire Safety Directions (Directions) or/and Fire Safety Compliance Orders (Orders) to owners of composite and domestic buildings, requiring them to install fire service installations such as water tanks and hose reel systems, in order to meet the fire safety standards currently required. Quite a number of owners of buildings which have not formed any Owners' Corporation (OC) or residents' organisation and have not hired any property management company (commonly known as "three-nil buildings") have relayed to me that they have tried for a number of times but in vain to form OCs, and thus they are unable to apply under the name of an OC for the relevant building maintenance loans and grants. In addition, the number of contractors who are willing to undertake the works concerned is so limited that the tender prices for the works remain on the high side. As a result, they are unable to afford the costs of works involved in complying with the Directions or Orders. It has been reported that the owners of a number of three-nil buildings have received in recent months the penalty demand notes issued by the enforcement authorities and some elderly owners worry that the fines will increase progressively due to continued non-compliance with the Directions or Orders, leaving them with no other choice but to sell their flats at low prices. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the number of composite buildings in respect of which the enforcement authorities issued Directions or Orders, as well as the respective numbers of prosecutions instituted and convictions in relation to non-compliance with Directions or Orders, in each of the past three years (together with a breakdown by District Council district and whether such buildings had formed OCs); the penalties generally imposed on those persons convicted;

(2) given that three-nil buildings have not formed OCs and when some of the owners are unwilling to comply with Directions or Orders, other owners who are willing to comply will be saddled with fines as a result, whether the Government has assessed if this situation is fair to those owners who are willing to co-operate, and whether it will make changes to the current practice of imposing fines across-the-board on all owners who have failed to comply with Directions or Orders, and give a longer grace period to those owners who have taken substantive actions; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(3) whether it will, by making reference to the "Operation Building Bright", roll out an "Operation Fire Safety Building Bright" to provide eligible owners of three-nil buildings with grants for costs of works as well as professional support on technical and property management aspects; whether it will enact legislation to empower the enforcement authorities to undertake fire safety works for buildings of non-complying owners and recover the costs from the owners upon completion of the works; whether it will set up a fund to provide subsidies for owners with financial difficulties; whether it will examine the establishment of a building maintenance authority to ensure fair tendering processes for building maintenance works and to attract more contractors to bid for the contracts of such works; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?      



     The Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap 572) (the Ordinance) stipulates that the fire service installations and fire safety construction of composite and domestic buildings constructed on or before March 1, 1987, or with their building works plans first submitted for approval on or before that day, should be enhanced to meet the modern standards. The Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Buildings Department (BD) will issue Fire Safety Directions (Directions) to owners or occupiers and specify the fire safety improvement works required. 

     In the past three years, FSD and BD issued Directions to the owners and occupiers of 2 100 old composite buildings, with detailed figures at Table I. While owners and occupiers are normally required to comply with the Directions within one year, the departments will, provided that fire safety is not compromised and under reasonable circumstances, suitably extend the deadline for compliance, such that owners and occupiers will have enough time to arrange for works to improve the fire safety of their buildings. In fact, most buildings issued with Directions have been granted an extension of one year or more. 

     However, if owners or occupiers eventually do not comply with the Directions within a reasonable time frame and fail to provide reasonable justifications, the departments indeed have the responsibility to take law enforcement actions, otherwise the Ordinance could lose its effectiveness, and the fire safety standards of old buildings could not be improved. Before the initiation of prosecution, the authorities will take into consideration the evidence and circumstances of each case, including the follow-up actions taken by individual owners or occupiers with regard to the Directions. The prosecution and conviction figures in the past three years are at Table II. According to records, the fine for each conviction generally ranged from several hundred dollars to over $1,000.

     Since the implementation of the Ordinance, the Government has been rendering all sorts of support to owners. On technical assistance, having regard to the actual circumstances of individual buildings, FSD may adjust the requirements in the Directions and consider alternative proposals put forward by owners. In recent years, FSD has also taken the initiative to study different improvised measures, with a view to alleviating the technical problems and lowering the costs of works. For instance, last year, FSD substantially lowered the requirements for fire service water tanks for old buildings of four to six storeys. If such a building is located in the urban area reachable by fire appliances within six minutes, the capacity of the water tank may be substantially lowered from 2 000 litres to 500 litres to alleviate the structural constraints of the roof due to excessive loading. 

     "Three-nil" buildings and old buildings without an Owners' Corporation (OC) may encounter difficulties in co-ordinating fire safety improvement works. The Home Affairs Department (HAD), through its Building Management Professional Advisory Service Scheme (the Scheme), has been engaging professional property management companies to assist owners in the formation of OCs. Since its introduction in 2011, the Scheme has successfully assisted owners to form or reform over 350 OCs, and assisted over 200 OCs to apply for subsidies or loans for building maintenance.

     On financial support, the Government, the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS) and the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) have set up financial assistance schemes, which cover the fire safety improvement works under the Ordinance. For example, the Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme managed by the HKHS and the URA have been providing Common Area Repair Works Subsidy to owners of old buildings. For general building maintenance works, the subsidy can reach $1.2 million for each OC, or $3,000 for each unit. For eligible owners with financial needs, they may apply for a subsidy up to $10,000.

     Besides, the Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners managed by the HKHS provides a subsidy of up to $40,000 for elderly owners living in their own flats. Owners may also apply for loans of up to $1 million under the Building Safety Loan Scheme. Experience shows that many owners have successfully completed building maintenance and fire safety improvement works under those subsidy schemes. We will continue to explore means to provide further financial assistance to owners with financial needs.

     There are suggestions the Government could undertake the works for old buildings and recover the costs from the owners upon completion. The fire safety improvement works required by the Ordinance often require the construction of new facilities and provision of new equipment, giving rise to different feasible options and works arrangements, and the scale and costs of works may vary to a large extent. Therefore, the owners must co-ordinate among themselves and choose the most suitable works options in light of the specific circumstances of their individual buildings, instead of having such decisions taken by the enforcement authorities on their behalf, which may trigger unnecessary disputes or even litigations.

     Moreover, Hon Lee is concerned about the fairness of tendering processes for building maintenance works. In this regard, the authorities will continue to prevent and combat such unlawful acts through such means as law enforcement, publicity and provision of technical support to owners.  When this Council debated a motion on bid-rigging last week, the Secretary for Development and the Secretary for Home Affairs have explained the Government's position and measures, and I will not repeat here.

     For the improvement works relating to fire service installations under the Ordinance, the works agent must be a registered fire service installation contractor, and the information of such contractors have all been uploaded in the website of FSD. To help registered fire service installation contractors better understand the requirements of works under the Ordinance, FSD has organised seminars from time to time to explain the criteria of works acceptable to FSD. The seminars have received overwhelming responses from the industry. FSD will continue its publicity efforts in this respect.

     To conclude, the authorities are not unaware of the challenges and difficulties encountered by owners in discharging the requirements under the Ordinance, and have been devising ways to provide practical assistance to those in need. However, the public should also appreciate that as Hong Kong is a densely populated city, old buildings which do not meet the modern fire safety standards are indeed hidden threats to the society, with significant consequences in case of fire. Indeed, fires in the past have resulted in significant causalities and injuries. The relevant departments will continue to review the existing measures from time to time to better assist owners in enhancing the fire safety of old buildings. We hope that these measures will reduce the threat of fire, and make our city a safer place in live in.

     Thank you, President.
Ends/Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Issued at HKT 16:30
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