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Blots on the landscape

10/05/2003 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

Derelict buildings are usually made up of abandoned buildings, although there have been cases where they are occupied, if not by their owners, then by tenants or squatters.

Abandoned buildings, on the other hand, need not necessarily be in derelict condition, although in due course, the combined factors of neglect and decay would bring about the same result.

In Alor Star, located not too far from the Zahir Mosque, there is a partially built highrise abandoned by its developer more than six years ago. From the road, it appears to be a strong and solid structure, but over time, it will become a decaying, derelict edifice. What a waste!

Derelict buildings are not the monopoly of ghost towns and sleepy hollows. They are also found in old sections of our towns and cities. If too many are located in one place, it becomes the embryo for an urban ghetto.

Like any other Asian city, Kuala Lumpur has its own share of derelict and abandoned buildings. These are the unwelcome blemishes on its otherwise magnificent landscape. One that comes easily to my mind is located in Medan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, and in the presence of modern high-tech skyscrapers such as Vision City, Menara SEA and Maju Junction.

Thankfully, the issue has caught the attention of our national leaders, with Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Tan Sri Bernard Dompok heading a committee to look into the safety aspects of hundreds of abandoned commercial buildings.

Besides determining the exact number of such buildings, the committee is also tasked with identifying the dangers they pose and the measures needed to resolve any problems.

Among the many issues is the danger of rusting tower cranes sitting atop the buildings which can topple over. Inadequate safety measures to prevent construction material from falling off, causing injury to pedestrians or neighbouring properties is another issue that has to be addressed.

Then there’s the subject of public health. Not only can abandoned buildings become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, they can also become hide-outs for drug addicts and criminal elements.

Minister of Housing and Local Government Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting had gone on record as saying that commercial buildings are not governed by the Housing Development Act 1966, but fall under the jurisdiction of the local authorities. On that basis, Dompok’s committee has to discuss the problems with the relevant authorities, and then forward its findings and recommendations to the federal government.

Obviously, one medicine won’t suit all - different strategies have to be worked out for buildings that can be saved and those that have to be demolished.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, two forms of remedial action - known as the Better Buildings Programme (BBP) and the Unsafe Buildings Programme (UBP) - were taken in respect of the hundred-plus derelict buildings in the city.

Under BBP, derelict buildings were given a second lease of life, by restoration and facelifts. They were then rented out at affordable rates by the city. With UBP, derelict buildings found to be structurally unsound were demolished, and their sites used for urban redevelopment.

The problem in Johannesburg began more than a decade ago when businesses moved out of the inner city for the northern suburbs, leaving behind unoccupied buildings. Matters became worse when building owners also left or migrated elsewhere. Some of these abandoned properties were sold to “slumlords”; others were just abandoned, leaving them open for squatters to take over. Some buildings became havens for the city’s criminal elements.

Before demolition was carried out under UBP, city officials got in touch with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) to make sure the structure wasn’t classified as a historic building (meaning it is over 60 years old and identified as a heritage structure).

Under our Street, Drainage and Building Act 1975, the relevant provisions are sections 83 and 84.

Under section 83, if the local authority (after conducting an inquiry) considers that a building “is likely to fall or is in any way dangerous to any person therein or foot passengers on the streets”, it can serve a notice on the owner to either carry out repairs or to demolish it.

Alternatively, the local authority can ask the owner to “put up hoardings or fences”. Non-compliance with the notice is an offence under the Act. Upon conviction, the owner can be fined an amount not exceeding RM250 for every day the offence continues.

Meanwhile, section 83(9) empowers the local authority to demolish the building if the owner, upon being served notice to demolish his building, fails to do so while section 84 of the Act empowers the local authority to shut and secure deserted buildings.

But having laws is one thing; now, we have to hope that the powers have the ability to wield it for the good of our environment.


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