Cowboy construction boom is destroying our neighbourhoods

Hong Kong is the easiest place in the whole world to get a construction permit, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report; this should come as no surprise to anyone who’s witnessed the looting of our city by developers over the last few decades, with dirty, dangerous building sites forcing their way onto almost every city block, unabated, unchecked, showing a blatant disregard for worker safety and community responsibility.

Given the ease of permitting, it’s no coincidence that Hong Kong also has the most dangerous building sites in the developed world. Non-fatal construction accidents such as slips or falls increased 40% between 2011 and 2017 as the building boom accelerated. There were 22 deaths from construction in 2017 (against 23 in 2011); and 4114 recorded ‘incidents’ (against 3188 in 2011).

Any question of a link between ease of permitting and the poor (and worsening) safety record will go unanswered by officials. Construction is the darling of the Hong Kong government. This is partly due to its Chinese approach to “quantitative easing”: while western economies pump money to stave off a recession, the Chinese government pumps concrete. In mid-2019, responding to the protest crisis, the Hong Kong government announced a raft of initiatives to boost construction and turbocharge housing development: even Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s eulogy at former Chief Secretary David Akers-Jones funeral in late October contained a pledge to “build more housing”, apparently a deathbed wish of Akers-Jones which Lam had promised to fulfil.

Where construction seriously fails the city is in the invisible interface between building sites and the community. Hong Kong is a crowded place, and with the exception of new areas such as the developing Kai Tak site, on the former airport runway, many building projects are slap bang in the middle of crowded neighbourhoods.

Poor neighbour: this Emperor Holdings project on Mosque Street is a daily obstacle for pedestrians.

 

The sites are not good neighbours. Entrances are dirty, dusty, difficult to pass. Trucks lurch from the entrances without warning; heavy chains swing across pedestrians’ paths. The ground surface is uneven: usually drains and holes are covered by flimsy unattached wooden boards or mis-matched metal sheets (which are dangerously slippery in the wet). The building sites regularly exceed their permitted space and crowd pedestrians into single file against busy roads – the wooden hoardings are full of splinters, dirt, nails and screws poking out. No city site obeys the regulations to hose down vehicles on exit. Garbage is dumped on the street nearby, including illegal construction waste. Hoards of construction workers linger around the entrances smoking, making the air difficult to breathe. Workers flood into nearby parks and playgrounds, smoking, leering at parents who complain, safe from prosecution because, in Hong Kong, no official dares tackle the construction unions.

These atrocious sites are tolerated because, in one government consultant’s terms, “it’s only temporary”: but these sites are not “temporary”, they persist for years and they multiply.

Tight squeeze – pedestrians relegated by building project hoardings and workers on smoke breaks into dim narrow uneven passageways, not wide enough for a baby stroller

 

The sloppy site at 73 Caine Road is an example where the sidewalk was reduced to less than 80cm for over two years: pedestrians and “wheeled walkers” faced an uneven craggy walk of poorly formed concrete, with the flimsiest of plastic fencing between the edge of the sidewalk and the gaping construction hole in the ground. The site has now reached a point where the sidewalk can be widened to around one metre, and the hoardings are now more solid and permanent: but the buildings foundations are not yet driven, and it must surely be another two years before the sidewalk belongs to the people again.

A conservative estimate sees the neighbourhood disruption at five years – perhaps acceptable if the project is one of a kind… but there are four such sites along just a few hundred metres of western Caine Road; and when these are finished, there are plenty of ancient (30 years old) apartment blocks waiting to be acquired and replaced by developers. As one trashy hoarding comes down, two will go up.

Beginning of a billion-dollar project: sloppy site, only dozens of calls to officials and police saw it edge into compliance

Enforcement of the permitting law is slapdash and casual. One nearby site on Bonham Road required no less than 35 calls and emails to authorities to reign in its “site creep”. Machinery and materials were strewn across the public sidewalk, with only a flimsy orange tape to keep people out. A large tank of rusty water sat blocking the sidewalk, leaving a 30cm gap for pedestrians to squeeze through, and creating a serious drowning hazard. In fact, the Lands Department and Buildings Department visited this site twice each, with limited site tidying seen between each visit. It was only when the police were called, several times, and a resident demanded to see the actual permit drawing to compare against reality, that the site cleaned up and brought itself into compliance.

That a citizen must make so much noise to get a building site to keep within its permitted space is a travesty of social responsibility. At fault are the developers themselves – and they’re not short of money, with their HK$140 million apartments being snapped up like hot cakes – and the construction firms who cut corners to save money. Add to the blame the government officials who turn a blind eye – after all, building is good for the economy – and those officials who simply do not have the backbone to force an unruly builder into line.

As we approach a new construction boom, we must sort these problems out, or “liveability” will take yet another nose-dive and formerly pleasant neighbourhoods become just dirty construction slums.

 

***UPDATE*** 28-10-2019: widespread accident cover-ups

The South China Morning Post ran an excellent exposé on construction industry tactics for hiding true injury figures.

Siu Sin-man, from the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, said it was common for subcontractors to offer a one-off settlement to injured workers to avoid paying higher work insurance fees, losing out in bidding for future construction tenders, or even getting their entire project stopped by the Labour Department. “There is a widespread and systemic culture of private settlement and cover-ups, which harms workers’ rights and protections in the long run,” said Siu.
(Victor Ting, South China Morning Post, 28/10/2019, “Why an industrial accident could mean a life of pain and poverty for Hong Kong construction workers”)