More than 170 luxury private houses in Hong Kong are suspected of illegally occupying government land with swimming pools or other facilities, a development policy think-tank has found. The claim came days after a landslide uncovered unauthorised construction at an upmarket housing estate.

Landslide at Redhill Peninsula
A landslide at Redhill Peninsula on September 12, 2023 following heavy rain. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

By analysing satellite imagery and government planning documents, Liber Research Community identified 173 instances of potential illegal occupation at luxury housing estates, in the form of unauthorised work such as backyards and swimming pools. The survey covered parts of Hong Kong where luxury estates were built.

“Many of them are situated at the seaside or the hillside, and carry the same safety risks as the unauthorised works at the Redhill Peninsula,” the report said, referring to a luxury housing estate overlooking Tai Tam Bay that was the scene of the landslide last week.

Public safety

Speaking on an RTHK programme Liber’s Chan Kim-ching said last week’s rainstorm had brought to light safety issues of which the public may not have been aware. “People used to think that the practice of building private backyards … was an issue of legality or rational use of land resources. But [the rainstorm] has revealed that it’s an issue of public safety,” he said.

House 72 at Redhill Peninsula was found to have an illegal basement and to have illegally removed part of a wall to install windows, the Buildings Department has said.

Chan Kim-ching
Chan Kim-ching of the Liber Research Community. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Next to it, House 70 was found to have illegal structures including a basement. House 74 was inspected on Tuesday morning after its owner earlier refused to let government personnel in, local media reported.

Chief Executive John Lee on Tuesday vowed to take action against lease violations involving illegal structures.

Liber Research Community's report showing alleged illegal land occupation at Redhill Peninsula and Villa Rosa.
Liber Research Community’s report showing alleged illegal land occupation at Redhill Peninsula and Villa Rosa. Photo: @liberresearch on Instagram.

Lee said the government would “take action in accordance with the law,” including prosecuting and claiming costs from those responsible if they were found to have broken the law. The Lands Department has started remedial work at the Redhill Peninsula site.

Chan said unauthorised work had affected the slope’s structural integrity, and was one of the factors that caused the landslide.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Chan said that 21 instances of alleged illegal land use at Redhill Peninsula identified by Liber was the “tip of the iceberg,” and several other estates had similar unauthorised work.

The Lands Department tightened regulations for building on government land in 2017, requiring occupants to apply for short-term tenancies, which Liber said the owners of the listed properties had not applied for.

Landslide at Redhill Peninsula
A landslide at Redhill Peninsula on September 12, 2023 following heavy rain. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Villa Rosa, another luxury estate uphill from Redhill Peninsula, had 13 instances of suspected illegal occupation, according to the group’s report. Villa Cecil on Mount Davis was found to have had a private pool partially on government land for over two decades.

Some properties listed in the report had spread beyond permitted boundaries and into the outskirts of country parks, the group said.

Bernadette Linn
Secretary for Development Bernadette Linn. Photo: LegCo screenshot.

Liber urged authorities to investigate and take enforcement action against houses which encroached on government land.

Development minister Bernadette Linn said on Wednesday that the Buildings Department and Lands Department would jointly launch large-scale inspections at Redhill Peninsula. She said slope maintenance work would cost millions of dollars, and authorities would, within reason, recover costs from those responsible.

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.