After 125 years supporting local farm businesses, Brachers is clearly a firm that takes a pride in its heritage and in the long-term support it has given to farmers and landowners since it was founded in 1895.
While the firm’s heritage is important, the Maidstone-based solicitors’ practice has its sights set firmly on the future and continues to provide client-focused advice that aims to maximise the business opportunities for modern farmers.
Although today’s world is very different to the one in which Henry Bracher founded the firm, when he was Clerk to the Guardians of the Hollingbourne workhouse, Brachers’ commitment to the community and its clients has remained the same throughout its history.
That focus on delivering good service and providing a broad range of advice has seen the firm grow significantly over the past century and a quarter. One of the biggest firms in Kent, it has now topped the 200-plus mark in terms of staff and has just expanded its operation in east Kent by opening a new Canterbury office.
Partner and Head of Agriculture Sarah Webster recognises that the history of the firm is a vital touchstone to its current success but also believes that it is the breadth of the operation that sets it apart from other farming-focused practices. She pointed out that what she describes as “true team work” between the various departments within Brachers allows the firm to provide holistic advice to farmers and landowners that draws on the skills of the whole firm.
As a property expert, she knows that if any of the work she undertakes has another legal angle to it, she can quickly bring in one of the firm’s other lawyers to make sure that Brachers’ advice to clients is comprehensive and multi-dimensional.
“We pride ourselves on working together with our clients and other professional advisers, taking the time to sit down and talk to many of our farming and landowner clients,” she said. “Those close relationships mean we can provide timely advice and support new initiatives from the outset.
“It can just be a throwaway line about a potential opportunity, but by picking up that thread and working closely with the client and other experts, we can often help turn a potential good idea into a fully fledged, income-generating project,” Sarah explained. “Equally importantly, we can avoid some of the pitfalls. In many cases it’s important to structure things carefully and do everything in the right order to give the best possible return and make sure the work is delivered in the most practical and tax-efficient way.”
While the firm values the personal touch provided by face-to-face interaction, Brachers continues to move with the times and has issued staff with tablet PCs that allow them to work in the field – literally in some cases – along with a considerable amount of other investment in IT. This also means lawyers are no longer restricted by geography when it comes to helping clients.
“While we value our 125-year heritage, we also embrace the opportunities provided by modern technology,” Sarah explained. “The new tablets really have freed the staff up to work in a more effective way while out and about.”
The firm has a rich heritage within the local farming community. Founder Henry Bracher was Honorary Secretary to the Kent Branch of the National Famer’s Union (NFU), a role which was continued by his son Philip. Retired partner Douglas Horner was also involved with the NFU at a national level and some of Brachers’ agricultural clients have been supported by the firm since the beginning.
Although not specifically set up as an agricultural practice, because Brachers was founded in the Garden of England during a time when agriculture was the predominant activity in this part of the world, the firm quickly gained an expertise in the sector that it has developed and enhanced over the past 125 years.
“Brachers was set up to support a community in which farming played an important part for much of the last century and it remains important to this day,” said Sarah.
In these changing times, agricultural and rural-based businesses are still a vital part of the local economy, they are facing new challenges and require innovative advice to help them modernise and make the most of the opportunities that are increasingly generating new income streams.
“While Brachers’ clients enjoy the benefits of being supported by a large and well-resourced firm which operates on a par with many of the firms in the city, the fees are more realistic for farmers and landowners in the South East,” Sarah explained. Of course, there is always a cost attached to expert advice, but the cost of poor advice can be much higher. At a recent agricultural event, a former client who had gone elsewhere for legal support came to the Brachers stand and told the team how much he regretted his decision.
While farmers are increasingly knowledgeable about the opportunities that come with owning land, it is vitally important to take an expert, independent, look at all the options.
“For example, if a landowner is asked for permission to have a pipe routed through a corner of a field, it’s really not enough to simply agree a fee, sign a document and bank the money,” Sarah warned.
“There are many other issues to be considered, such as how the pipe would impact the landowner’s future use or development on the land. In this case we would draft an agreement to include a ‘lift and shift’ clause if future development was likely. Landowners only have one chance to get it right, and expert advice is critical.”
Sarah advises on a whole range of property related issues, including sales and purchases, tenancies, issues related to the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986, options, easements and overage – where landowners are able to share in the increased value of land that is developed after they sell it.
She works closely with Christopher Eriksson-Lee, who heads up the firm’s private client team on estate and succession planning. Quite often this work involves Brachers’ corporate and commercial team, which provides advice on business structures. Sarah believes it is “the breadth of skills, true team work both internally and with other professionals and unwavering focus on providing comprehensive, thought‐through advice that highlights Brachers’ key value of being with their clients all the way”. Other specialists in the team include partner and planning expert Lee May, and partner Deborah Cain, a leading contentious probate lawyer who can help to untangle family disputes around a challenged legacy. They are supported by Tim Turner, who provides advice on corporate and commercial matters, Rhia Davis, who deals with family matters including divorce and estate planning, and Abigail Brightwell, an employment law specialist.
With farming facing many challenges, not least in responding to climate change and the post-Brexit landscape, diversification is increasingly important, with renewable energy and making the best use of farm buildings just two of the options being considered by many.
When diversification is on the agenda, Lee May and his planning team are there to make sense of the legislation, interpret planning law and help landowners achieve a profitable return on their investment.
“Diversification is an important way to create a new income stream while making the best use of the farm’s assets, but it needs to be done properly to maximise the return on investment,” Lee explained.
“Planning is complex in the 21st century. Most schemes need a huge range of reports – on ecology, archaeology, landscape, topography and traffic generation and many other aspects – and every one of them is an important part of the overall submission.”
Brachers’ 125 years of experience and network of consultants means it has good contacts with the people who can provide those reports, allowing the firm to bring together a coherent, well-presented case.
Changing the use of a building, or inviting the public on to a farm, also brings the landowner into contact with a raft of new legislation, not least around health and safety.
As well as giving planning advice, Lee can advise on all aspects of health and safety, environmental health legislation, transportation issues and fire safety, while colleagues who can advise on tax planning, raising finance and business structure issues are just a phone call away, thanks to Brachers’ multi-disciplinary approach.
With renewable energy still one of the biggest diversification opportunities, Lee pointed out the need for landowners to take professional advice when approached by solar energy companies. “It’s dangerous and could be costly to strike a deal with, for instance, a solar farm business without agreeing who will be responsible for removing the panels at the end of their life or how the payments to the farm will be structured, for example.”
While there is currently a shortage of good quality industrial units in the South East, and government advice is generally in favour of their provision in repurposed farm buildings, Lee pointed out that farmers should always use professional support to give their planning application the best chance of success.
Tourism is also opening up new diversification opportunities, with Brachers able to advise on planning permission for everything from holiday lets and ‘glamping’ to petting zoos and other farm-based days out.
Lee also deals with the planning issues around retail units and farm shops as well as advising on using farm buildings as event centres and even wedding venues.
He pointed out that diversification is often good for succession planning within farming families, as having a portfolio of businesses to hand over to the next generation – in addition to the family farm – is an attractive business option.
“Farming is changing,” Lee concluded. “In our experience, the businesses that will make the most of those changes are those that are forward thinking and prepared to grasp new opportunities. Brachers is determined to provide the professional advice they need to help make that happen.”
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Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic