Hong Kong’s new justice minister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah should pay a land premium for the extra living space gained from an illegally built basement, the head of a think tank of professionals said on Wednesday.
The call, made by Professional Commons convenor Albert Lai Kwong-tak, came as the city’s development minister said priority would be given to the investigation of Cheng’s case.
“Cheng has been using extra space valued at over HK$10 million for the past 10 years without paying any premium,” Lai said on an RTHK programme. He said Cheng, as a certified civil engineer, had damaged the public image of professionals.
Cheng was seen leaving her home at 7am Wednesday. She did not comment on the case.
Lai said he believed the government would recover land rates for the extra space from Cheng, but the premium – which would be higher than the rates – was never sought by the Lands Department.
Lai Kin-fai, managing director of Centaline Surveyors, said existing laws did not allow for the Lands Department to recover the premium for the extra space occupied by unauthorised structures.
Row over Hong Kong justice chief’s illegal structures at her home shows city’s knack for self-destruction
He said the Buildings Department – rather than the Lands Department – would handle Cheng’s case if the total size of construction did not exceed the limit set in the land deed.
“The Buildings Department will order restoration [through demolition of the unauthorised structures], and close the case after it approves the results,” Lai said.
He suggested that a “price” should also be considered in estimating the added value Cheng and her husband had enjoyed for free over the years they had lived in the house.
“Of course, it will add to the owners’ financial risk [of having unauthorised structures] if the authorities can recover the ‘price of extra enjoyment’, but implementation would be very difficult,” the surveyor said.
He said it would be hard for building inspectors to confirm the exact occupation period of such additional space or to evaluate similar structures in countless other buildings across the city.
On Tuesday, inspectors from the Buildings Department examined the two adjacent three-storey villas in Tuen Mun owned by Cheng and her husband Otto Poon Lok-to and found 10 unauthorised structures occupying an area of 1,500 sq ft in total.
Land Registry records show Cheng bought her house in 2008 for HK$26 million, while Poon bought his in 2012 for HK$27 million.
On December 27 last year, soon after Cheng – who is also a lawyer – was tipped to become the new secretary for justice, the Buildings Department was alerted about the structures by media inquiries concerning the houses.
Cheng and Poon, also an engineer, said the structures were already part of the premises when they bought the properties.
Secretary for Development Michael Wong Wai-lun said on Wednesday that according to a policy adopted since 2011, the Buildings Department would handle illegal structure cases involving senior government officials and celebrities as a priority to clear public concerns as early as possible.
“I have total confidence that the Buildings Department will continue to deal with the case impartially,” the minister said.
He said whether there would be any legal action taken against Cheng and her husband would depend on the evidence and investigation results.
A spokeswoman for the Lands Department yesterday said inspectors from its Tuen Mun district office would conduct on-site examinations of the houses belonging to Cheng and Poon.
If they were found to be in breach of the land deeds, the department would issue a warning letter and require that measures be taken to remove any illegal structures, the spokeswoman said.
Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao