HONG KONG - Hong Kong’s public watchdog on Tuesday lashed out at the Lands Department after it failed to take action for more than two decades over encroachment on a piece of government land in the New Territories.
The ombudsman said the involved land and house had been resold twice during the period and the previous two owners are likely to evade legal consequences. The inaction and laxity by the department had condoned the illegal violations, Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said in a press conference announcing the investigation on Tuesday.
The case originated in 1994 when the owner of a piece of agricultural land received permission from the local District Lands Office (DLO) to build a house on the land.
The house, finished in 1995, was found to have several violations of the land-lease conditions, with unauthorized structures including a balcony, a stair hood and exceeding the limit on height as well as occupation of adjacent government land. In 1996, the owner sold the house to others, gaining a profit of HK$500,000, despite this being against the lease condition.
Between 1999 and 2003, the subsequent owners took the violation further by carrying out a number of unauthorized extension works, including constructing two porches, a roofed structure, steel gate and enclosing wall. At its peak, it enclosed an area of 316 square meters (3,400 square feet), of which one-third was government property.
The department in 2004 revoked the land waiver but this was ignored by the owner. The agricultural land was resold again in 2005.
The case was transferred to the action team of the department in 2007 but no law enforcement action was taken until 2014, when the team sent several warnings to the latest owner, whom they asked to rectify the irregularities and restore the government’s land as well.
The team last year registered a warning letter over the agricultural land, imposing encumbrance on the land. The owner was convicted twice last year and this year for illegal occupation of government land and erection of unauthorized structures.
The ombudsman criticized the Lands Department for its laxity and delay by taking eight years to remove the house’s construction permit and the action team seven more years of inaction after they took over the case.
They also criticized the action team’s inappropriate strategies in prioritizing cases, by following the principles of “straightforward cases first, thorny cases last”, which means to handle simple cases first, and “last in first out”, which means to handle the most recent cases first.
“As a result, a number of serious and complicated cases, including this case, had remained outstanding for years,” said Lau.
The department, in response, apologized for taking two decades to deal with the case, saying it will take back the agricultural land as the relevant violations were not rectified by the deadline given.