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SUMPTUOUS houses have long existed onagricultural land in the New Territories (NT),and they have kept changing hands.
Property prices have soared in recent years, andsome have speculated in such properties. Though aperson who buys such a house risks losing his title toit, they have been bought and sold. This is the casesolely because the Lands Department has longwinked at unauthorised works.
A luxury house on agricultural land may fall intoeither of two categories. It may be a squatter hut or alicensed structure. A registered squatter may getresettlement and compensation if his hut isdemolished. Licensed structures on agricultural landare meant to be used as storage for farmimplements, resting places or sties. Some may beused as dwellings. However, a licensed structuremay at most cover 400 square feet and be 17 feethigh (have two storeys). (This rule has beenrelaxed).
The licence of such a structure is notassignable under the present system. It expireswhen the licensee dies. Therefore, a person whobuys such a property takes only the agricultural landon which it stands. When the licensee dies, he willnot get the licence. He may apply to the LandsDepartment for modification so that the licensedstructure will be legal housing. However, rarely dosuch applications succeed. Therefore, a person whobuys a luxury house that is actually a licensedstructure runs high risk. His interests in it are in noway protected. A real estate agent has mentioned toour investigative reporters the risk a buyer of alicensed structure is exposed to. Licensed structuresare not supposed to be dwellings. However, realestate agents, who ought to abide by the law, act asgo-betweens in those transactions. It is doubtful thatthis is right. In our view, the Estate Agents Authorityshould look at the situation and rectify it.
We gather that the Heung Yee Kuk, in talkingwith the government about straightening outunauthorised building works (UBW) in the NT, hasdemanded that UBW in licensed structures belegitimised and that licences be made inheritable.
The demands involve enormous interests and havemuch to do with Hong Kong's overall planning. Thegovernment cannot be too careful in dealing withthem. For example, if UBW in a licensed structurebecome legal upon the payment of a regrantpremium, the 160,000 licensed structures thatexisted in the SAR as at July last year (of which only61 were in urban areas) will become or will becapable of becoming luxury dwellings. NT peoplealso want the government to make licensedstructures assignable to directly-related familymembers. If the government give the green light tothis demand, licensed structures will suddenlybecome much pricier. It is against the law to carryout UBW. It is certainly improper for the governmentto be intimidated into legitimising them.
It has become hard to get rid of UBW in the NTbecause the Lands Department has long been slackin law enforcement. It is now indeed very difficult todeal with the problem satisfactorily. Nevertheless, inany event, the government must adhere to twoprinciples. First, indigenous NT inhabitants' privilegemust in no way be expanded. For example, no NewTerritories Exempted House should have aroofed-over area larger than 700 square feet or betaller than 27 feet. Second, UBW on agricultural landshould in no way be made legitimate. If thegovernment departs from either because of NTpeople's clamour or intimidation, it will bring aboutno end of trouble and sow discord between NTpeople and urban dwellers. That would in no wayconduce to social harmony or stability.


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