THE National Environment Agency (NEA) has sent a formal notice to Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), reminding it of its legal obligations, after it failed to do a thorough cleaning of a market and food centre in Bedok.
The advisory issued yesterday to the Workers' Party (WP)-led town council stated that under Section 18 (1) of the Town Councils Act, town councils are responsible for the maintenance and cleanliness of all common property, including markets and hawker centres.
It noted that since the 2003 Sars outbreak, all town councils have been expected to do spring cleaning of Housing Board-owned markets and hawker centres under their charge.
The NEA, which has had a coordinating role in the spring cleaning of these hawker centres since 2004, said town councils must "carry out a thorough cleaning" of all common areas including drains, columns, floors and fans. "The ceilings, beams and exhaust ducts are to be cleaned at least once a year during major spring cleanings," said the NEA note, released to the media.
The NEA reminded the town council that it must bear costs of the cleaning, including the erection of scaffolding, "without any additional charges" as it collects monthly service and conservancy fees from stallholders.
It added that the town council will be held accountable for any hygiene or public health lapses under the Environment and Public Health Act.
The agency's reminder yesterday came after stallholders of Block 538, Bedok North Street 3 returned to their stalls after a five-day closure in March to find that ceiling and exhaust ducts had not been cleaned. Ten stallholders there said they each paid $140 to their committee chairman in March for canvas covers for their stalls during the clean-up.
They also said they were told by AHPETC that it was not responsible for the ceiling cleaning.
Stallholders at two other food markets and food centres in Aljunied GRC said they, too, were told by AHPETC that they must pay for the erection of scaffolding in order for AHPETC's contracted cleaners to clean the high areas. These centres are at Blocks 511 of Bedok North Street 3 and Block 630 of Bedok Reservoir Road.
All three market and food centres are being maintained by FM Solutions and Services (FMSS), the AHPETC's managing agent.
The row between the stallholders and AHPETC came amid a war of words between the WP and the People's Action Party (PAP) in Parliament last month over managing agent rates.
In the case of the Block 538 centre, AHPETC admitted it had not cleaned the ceilings and exhaust ducts.
Mr Yeo Soon Fei, its deputy general manager, later wrote to The Straits Times Forum to say that it was told by the NEA in February that the hawker association there would be making the scaffolding arrangements.
But "for reasons unknown", the structures were not provided for, said Mr Yeo.
The NEA responded, stating that "all town councils have always been responsible for paying contractors to erect scaffolding where required to clean walls".
The NEA also noted yesterday that the cleaning contractor had provided scaffolding for Block 511 during last year's spring cleaning exercise, while scissor lifts were used during the spring cleaning of Block 630, Bedok Reservoir Road.
Mr Wan Khow Wai, 62, who runs a cooked food stall at Block 511, said: "All this while, the town council would clean the ceilings and exhaust ducts and we never had to pay extra."
At another food centre maintained by AHPETC - Block 209, Hougang Street 21 - its committee chairman Lau Meng Chye said that for its cleaning next week, AHPETC told him that stallholders must pay to erect scaffolding as its cleaners will not clean areas above 2.5m. But because it did not issue a letter stating this formally, the 53-year-old has cancelled the scaffolding plans.
The town council did not reply to The Straits Times' queries last week.
A Straits Times check with 30 stallholders from markets and food centres managed by the other 15 town councils islandwide found all saying that they have never had to pay for the erection of scaffolding so that their town councils' cleaners can clean the high areas.
Hawker Raymond Tan, 56, a snack seller at 50A Marine Terrace Market for more than 30 years, said: "Cleaning is carried out by the town council on a quarterly basis. Twice a year, the cleaners will clean the ceiling and fans. We've never had to pay any fees for such major cleaning."