Category Archive: Rural

Quarry redeveloped into nationally-known tourist attraction

A Northumberland quarry which had fallen into disuse is being redeveloped into a nature reserve, in a project spearheaded by the local community.

Embleton Quarry dates back to 1864 and was a major source of employment for the area for over 100 years, but after whinstone production ended in the 1960s, the site became overgrown and unused.

Wanting to revive the site, Embleton Parish Council put together a plan of action in 2016 which led to them acquiring parts of the quarry in stages from Northumberland County Council, and now owns the whole quarry and the associated Quarry House.

Led by local people, the site – the first on the coast to be awarded Dark Skies Designation Status – has been subject to extensive works to make it into an attraction for locals and tourists alike, with significant clearance and groundwork being carried out over the past five years.

Through the dedication of the Parish Council and the Embleton community, the site is now easily accessible again after the years of dereliction, and work is ongoing to make it fully accessible to wheelchairs and pushchairs so as to become a family and disability-friendly attraction.

The latest phase in the development of Embleton Quarry Nature Reserve involves the preservation of the Quarry House, once the home of the quarry manager, which it is hoped will be restored in the years ahead.

The huge achievement has seen the project feature on Kate Humble’s Coastal Britain, as part of her visit to Northumberland earlier this year.

The acquisition of the site has been supported by specialists at law firm Sintons, which has supported Embleton Parish Council in delivering on its ambitions to revive the quarry to become a site at the heart of its community.

“We have spent a lot of time designing the site to get to our objective of creating a nature reserve,” says Terry Howells, chair of Embleton Parish Council.

“The great thing about this project is that nobody has had a bad word to say about it, everyone seems to be with us. It’s very much led by the community.

“Back in 2017, we got to work straight away in clearing undesirable gorse and other vegetation, acquiring the rest of the quarry and then opening up more of the site from there.

“We’ve managed to clear a lot of paths and it’s now a site people can visit and enjoy, although work continues. We held a trial evening of stargazing in the darkest part of the quarry, and over 100 people came, so that was very successful – we look forward to hosting more of such events.

“Recently we organised clearing inside the house, which was a big job in itself – over the years the roof had fallen in and some massive trees had grown inside the house, and we are now working on getting it ready for stabilisation work to take place.

“This has been a huge undertaking and a very exciting project, and we’re delighted to have such positivity and positive feedback from the community and from our visitors, too.”

The Parish Council has been supported by Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, alongside real estate solicitor Sam Watts, in the acquisition and development of the site.

“The development of Embleton Quarry Nature Reserve is an absolutely fantastic project, and the fact this has been led by the local community makes it very special,” says Sam.

“This has been a real labour of love for the Parish Council, and their volunteer workers whose dedication has been unfaltering.

“Through their efforts, what was once a key site in the local community has regained its proud status through becoming an attraction which is set to bring in tourists from miles around, as well as being a beautiful area for local people to enjoy.

“It has been a genuine privilege to be part of such a community-led initiative, which continues to develop and become even more impressive. Embleton Quarry Nature Reserve is now another great asset in our wonderful North East of England and we are delighted to have supported the plans in becoming a reality.”

The implications for landlords following the end of the moratorium

Partner and Head of the Agriculture, Estates & Rural Property department at Sintons, Tom Wills, alongside Real Estate solicitor Sam Watts, recently recorded a podcast where they discussed the implications for landlords following the end of the moratorium.

You can listen to it below.

Agriculture and Estates offering continues to develop at Sintons

Specialists from across Sintons are helping to drive forward the firm’s specialist agriculture and estates team, which continues to grow its profile and case load across the North of England.

The team has built trust with rurally-based families and businesses over the course of generations, with Sintons’ presence in rural and farming communities spanning much of its 126-year history.

The firm’s legal expertise and outstanding client service has made it the legal advisor of choice for people across several generations of families and business ownership, and its presence continues to grow across the North of England on the strength of its reputation.

Bringing together expertise and leading lawyers from across a number of Sintons practice areas, the agriculture and estates team – headed by Tom Wills – has made significant gains in the past few years in particular.

The firm’s specialism is widely known and respected in what is a very niche area of law, where few firms are recognised as having the capability and knowledge to truly serve the unique needs of rural communities.

Bringing in expertise from a host of specialisms, Sintons offers bespoke support in family law, real estate, contentious and non-contentious private client work, dispute resolution, regulatory and business matters, and commercial work.

Key team members comprise Alan Dawson, the firm’s chairman who has been known for supporting rural families for over 40 years; Angus Ashman, Jay Balmer, Robert Burn, Paul Collingwood, Sophie Dodds, Cristina Falzon, Lauren Fraser, Elizabeth Gallagher, Louise Kelly, Paul Liddle, Amanda Maskery, Louise Masters, Emelie Rowell, Emma Saunders and Sam Watts.

“The capability of our team is there for all to see, and few other firms can come anywhere close to the decades of expertise, experience and reputation we have in our agriculture and estates offering,” says Tom Wills.

“For generations, we have been by the sides of families and businesses in rural and agricultural communities across the North of England, earning the trust of these clients so they stay with us over the course of many years. It is a privilege to be able to support them through hugely significant moments in the lives of individuals and families, and to be able to give our expert advice to benefit businesses.

“We continue to grow on the strength of our reputation and the outstanding legal and client service we deliver, and our instructions come from across the entire region, often involving matters of great complexity, which Sintons is well equipped to handle.

“The growth we have seen, and continue to see, is hugely positive and confirms the standing that Sintons has held for many years in this very specialist area of law.”

Sintons sponsors Point to Point

Law firm Sintons is continuing to show its support for rural communities by lending its support to a staple Northumberland racing event.

Sintons, a trusted name among rural and farming families and businesses across the North of England for generations, was a sponsor of the Men’s Open Race at the Point to Point racing event in Alnwick at the weekend.

The Point to Point event, a form of amateur horse racing which has taken place in Northumberland for decades, attracts racegoers of all ages from across the county and beyond and its meetings are hugely popular occasions.

Sintons – whose specialist agriculture and estates team is one of the leading names in the North, known for its specialist knowledge in a very complex area of law – added its support to the Percy Hunt in support of a key community event, which has been absent for much of the past two years.

Tom Wills, partner and head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, said: “The Point to Point is a much-loved longstanding event in Northumberland which plays a central role in the community. Amateur horse racing plays a role at the heart of rural life and has been much missed during the pandemic.

“It is fantastic to again see people gathering at these superb events and we are only too pleased to lend our support. As specialist and deeply trusted advisors to families and businesses across rural Northumberland for generations, we will always play our role in making communities as vibrant as possible, and key events like this are really important in doing that.”

A Rural Roundup with Tom Wills – episode 7

In episode seven of the Rural Roundup series with Tom Wills, Tom and Sam Watts from our Real Estate team discuss ‘right of way – landowners options’

Please click on the play button below to listen.

IMPORTANT UPDATE – DEFRA have recently announced the planned cut-off of 1st January 2026 for the recording of new rights of way to be included within the Definitive Map and Statement has been abolished. No new deadline has yet been proposed. More details are set to follow and we will communicate those in due course.

Sintons again recognised for capability across the board by Chambers 2022

Sintons has again been hailed as one of the leading law firms in the North of England in newly-released rankings from Chambers and Partners UK.

The firm, consistently praised for its strength and capability throughout the business, again wins recognition for its legal expertise, deep experience and first-rate levels of client service.

Practice areas across the business win recognition as leaders in their field, with healthcare again being confirmed as one of the key advisors nationally for its work with growing numbers of NHS Trusts, organisations, professionals and healthcare businesses across the UK.

Chambers and Partners 2022, published today, also highlights 17 of Sintons’ lawyers as being stand-out names in their specialism, many of whom are recognised in the legal marketplace as being leading figures regionally and nationally.

The rankings come only weeks after Sintons won similar praise across the board from Legal 500, which also recognised the wide-ranging expertise, legal capability and service excellence the firm delivers to its clients.

Both Chambers and Legal 500 are independent publications which assess and rank law firms and lawyers throughout the UK, based on interviews, examples of work, and client and peer testimonials.

“For over 125 years, Sintons has built a well-deserved reputation as a first-rate legal advisor delivering outstanding levels of service to its clients, and those values have remained at the heart of the firm since our foundation in 1896,” says managing partner Christopher Welch.

“That these key features are consistently highlighted by independent legal publications like Chambers and Partners, and recently Legal 500 too, is a huge endorsement of what we do here at Sintons. Businesses, families and individuals put their trust in us to deliver an outstanding legal and personal service and that is what we deliver.

“Chambers again confirms our strength across the whole Sintons business, with capability and talent running throughout the firm, and a shared commitment by everyone here to continue to build Sintons so it can be the best it can be. We are all delighted to again have our efforts recognised in this way.”

Legal 500 praises Sintons for agriculture and estates work

The agriculture and estates team at Sintons has again been hailed as a key advisor in its specialist area by Legal 500 2022, with significant expertise and experience within its ranks.

The team has grown significantly in the past few years, building on over 120 years of advising farming and rurally-based families, and is now a central player in estate and agricultural tenancy work.

Legal 500 points to its expertise in such areas, highlighting its work in acquisition and disposal of large farming ventures, agricultural holdings and significant development projects, as well as assisting with the registration of portfolios of mines and minerals.

It has also been instructed by a number of coal and wind farm sites in the North East in an endorsement of the team’s specialism in energy and renewables, Legal 500 notes.

Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates, is praised for his focus on estate and tenancy work, and partner Paul Liddle is also highlighted for his years of experience in acting for developers and landowners in the energy, waste and renewables sectors.

“Our client base in the rural and farming communities of the North East and Cumbria dates back more than a century, and Sintons is a trusted name among countless families having supported them with both personal and business affairs for generations,” says Christopher Welch, managing partner of Sintons.

“Coupled with that, we have a strong and growing specialism in estates and renewables work, which sees us involved in many of the major land projects in our rural communities. To see this capability again recognised by Legal 500 is a rightful endorsement of the work we are doing, both with existing and new clients.”

Sintons once again wins praise from Legal 500 2022

Law firm Sintons has again maintained its reputation as one of the leading law firms in the North of England in newly-released rankings from Legal 500, winning plaudits for its strength and expertise across the firm.

Legal 500 2022, released today, renews its praise of Sintons and confirms them as being a go-to legal provider in the region in many key practice areas.

The independent publication – which ranks law firms and lawyers across the North, compiled as a result of examples of work, interviews and client and peer testimonials – names eight of Sintons’ lawyers as leading individuals, three as next generation partners and a further six as rising stars. One of its lawyers also secures the highly coveted accolade of being named in the Legal 500 Hall of Fame, in recognition of consistent achievement throughout their career.

The latest Legal 500 rankings add further to the long-standing reputation of Sintons – winner of five awards at the most recent Northern Law Awards, including overall Law Firm of the Year – as a leading player in the North of England, with national reach and capability in many of its departments.

The leading individuals at Sintons, as identified by Legal 500, are:

The next generation partners, as identified by Legal 500, are:

The lawyer named as member of the Legal 500 Hall of Fame is:

The rising stars at the firm are:

Christopher Welch, managing partner of Sintons, said: “We are very proud of the reputation we have built during our 125 year history as being a law firm which consistently offers legal excellence and an outstanding service to our clients, and for these two factors to again be recognised by Legal 500 as being a staple of Sintons’ offering is very pleasing.

We are delighted to maintain our position as one of the leading law firms in the North of England, with strength, capability and experience running throughout our practice areas.”

A Rural Roundup with Tom Wills – episode 6

In episode six of the Rural Roundup series with Tom Wills, Tom and Sam Watts from our Real Estate team discuss ‘public rights of way – changes to the the definitive map.’

Please click on the play button below to listen.

IMPORTANT UPDATE – DEFRA have recently announced the planned cut-off of 1st January 2026 for the recording of new rights of way to be included within the Definitive Map and Statement has been abolished. No new deadline has yet been proposed. More details are set to follow and we will communicate those in due course.

Nuptial Agreements and Farming Divorces

Getting divorced is ranked as being one of the most stressful life events a person can experience. It is impossible to look into a crystal ball and see if a marriage will break down. Equally, there is no automatic formula that can be applied to work out how assets will be divided upon divorce, as judges have a wide discretion as to how to apply the law.

More and more people are therefore trying to limit the uncertainty of what will happen to their assets on divorce by entering into Nuptial Agreements. Such Agreements are either signed before a marriage, (a Pre-Nuptial Agreement) or after a marriage, (a Post-Nuptial Agreement).

Nuptial Agreements can be particularly helpful in the case of a farming divorce as there is likely to be an overlap between business and personal assets and there may be other family members involved in the business, which may have been built up over several generations.

Although Nuptial Agreements are not written into statute in England and Wales, (laws are different in Scotland), there is a good chance that Nuptial Agreements will be upheld by the English Courts if drawn up properly and meet certain requirements.

The Landmark case was Radmacher v Gramatino, in 2010 as for the first time, the Supreme Court made it clear that a Nuptial Agreement will be upheld unless one person can show why it should not be.

The Supreme Court said that “the Court should give effect to a Nuptial Agreement that is freely entered into by each party with a full appreciation of its implications, unless in the circumstances prevailing, it would not be fair to hold the parties to the Agreement”.

Since this decision, the Law Commission published a report in 2014 and recommended the introduction of “Qualifying Nuptial Agreements”. With a Qualifying Nuptial Agreement a couple will be able to make binding arrangements for division of their assets on divorce if certain procedural safeguards are met.  The Law Commission recommended that it would not be possible to contract out of meeting the financial needs of either party and of any children.

Although the Law Commissioners recommendations have not yet been enacted, the Courts are likely to uphold the terms of a Nuptial Agreement if certain requirements are met.  These requirements include: –

  1. The terms need to be fair, viewed against the circumstances at the time of the divorce.
  2. The parties must enter the Agreement without any duress and the Agreement must be signed at least 28 days before the marriage.
  3. Both parties must fully understand the terms of the agreement, have obtained independent legal advice, or had the opportunity to do so.
  4. Both parties must provide full details regarding their financial circumstances.

One difficult issue with Nuptial Agreements is that they are being considered without knowing when the marriage will break down and what the circumstances will be at the time of the breakdown.  In a farming divorce for example, the factors to be considered if a marriage breaks down after 5 years where there are no children and the non-farming spouse has worked independently from the farm, will be completely different to a marriage that breaks down after 20 years where there are children, and the non-farming spouse has worked in the business since the marriage.

For this reason it is generally advisable to put a review clause in a Nuptial Agreement so that the Agreement is reviewed every few years, and on the happening of any significant events such as the birth of a child.

Discussing what will happen to farm assets in the event of a divorce, may sound unromantic when a couple are planning their wedding.  It can however save a lot of stress, uncertainty and costs, not to mention the potential souring of relationships with extended family members, if the marriage does come to an end at some future date.

When considering a Nuptial Agreement, it is important to look at what the law says about how assets on divorce will be divided as given the criteria set out above, if an Agreement is deemed not to be fair, it is unlikely to be upheld.

There is little point in investing time and money in having a Nuptial Agreement prepared if it is not going to be enforceable.  There needs therefore to be a realistic discussion about what both parties will need in the event of a divorce and what assets there are to be divided.

There may be complicated discussions about assets deemed to be “non-matrimonial” as opposed to “matrimonial assets”. A spouse with the initial interest in the farm particularly where there are other family members involved, will no doubt be under pressure to try and ringfence all assets deemed to be “non-matrimonial”. This may not be possible if the needs of the non-farming spouse cannot be met.

Equally, a Nuptial Agreement that provides a financial settlement that is likely to be less favourable than if ordered though the court, stands a good chance of being upheld, provided the criteria set out above are satisfied.

Farming businesses are often cash rich and income poor.  The Court is unlikely to order the sale of a farm but there may need to be some creative thinking as to how a financial settlement can be provided to the non-farming spouse to enable them to be re-housed and to move forward with their lives.

Having such discussions and possibly involving other family members who are involved in the business, may result in a more constructive outcome and will incur a lower level of costs, than if such discussions take place in the shadow of Court proceedings as part of an acrimonious divorce.

Moreover, having such conversations before, or in the early days of marriage, may help a couple and other family members to be able to communicate openly with each other. Hopefully this will build trust and lay a solid foundation, not only for the couple in their personal relationship, but also for the successful continuation of the business.

Elizabeth Gallagher is a consultant in Sintons’ award-winning family team. To speak to Elizabeth, please contact her on elizabeth.gallagher@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 7813.

Planting the seeds now for the future

Succession planning for a farmer is difficult – even at the best of times – but by having open discussions now with your family you will be able to clarify intentions and plan for who will own and deal with the farm once you retire or die. These discussions will enable you to put in place key documents so that you are able to protect the farming business in the future.

Inheritance tax planning and will planning

It is important for a farmer to have a will so that the assets pass to the right beneficiaries in the most tax efficient way. My last article discussed the intricacies of inheritance tax planning for a farmer and the potential of claiming agricultural property relief and business property relief when you die. Inheritance tax planning and having a will are integral to a farmer’s succession planning. By not having a valid will in place, you could cause lasting damage to the farm and to your family.

Other key documents for effective planning

Further key steps for future proofing the farming business – including partnership agreements and lasting powers of attorney (LPA) – must be considered in line with how your farming business is structured to ensure that the business continues effectively if certain circumstances arise.

If you are farming in partnership with someone else, you should ensure that you have a written partnership agreement in place. Many spouses or family run farms operate within a partnership structure but do not have a partnership agreement. If you do not have a partnership agreement and one of the partners dies, this can have a detrimental effect on the farming business. The law dictates what happens to that partnership and it can cause issues, for example, with accessing bank accounts which, in turn, causes problems for the business, your family and the surviving business partner. By having a carefully drafted partnership agreement and by regularly reviewing it once it is in place, you will be acting both in the best interests of your family and in the farming business’s sustainability.

A LPA for property and financial affairs allows you to appoint people (your “attorneys”) that you know and trust to make decisions and act on your behalf if you need them to, for example, if you have an accident out on the field and need a period of rest to recuperate either in hospital or at home. You may need assistance with operating bank accounts so that suppliers and employees are paid. Alternatively, you may end up losing capacity to deal with your property and financial affairs and need your attorneys to step in permanently. You must make a LPA whilst you have the requisite capacity to do so. By having an LPA for property and financial affairs, you are ensuring the survival of the farm beyond a lack of capacity. Whilst there is the option of someone stepping in and applying to the Court of Protection to be appointed as your deputy so that he or she can have access to the farm assets on your behalf and make decisions in your best interests, this is a costly and time-consuming exercise. Time can be of the essence.
Planning and reviewing

It cannot be emphasised enough the importance of not delaying discussions and putting effective succession plans in place before it is too late. Even if you have put some plans in place, it is equally important to review them to see if they need changing in light of any current wishes you have, or changes made to the farming business since putting them in place.

Paul Collingwood is a senior associate in the specialist Wills, Trusts & Estates team at Sintons. To speak to Paul about this or any other matter, contact him on paul.collingwood@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 3713.

Protecting lone workers: How to manage the risks of working alone

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have given new guidance to help manage risks and keep lone workers healthy and safe.

The law will apply if:

  • You are an employer;
  • Your work activity is specifically mentioned in the regulations, this includes work in construction, agriculture, railways or work with gas, asbestos or genetically modified organisms, or;
  • Your work activity poses a risk to the health and safety of anyone else.

Think about the types of activities you undertake as part of your work and ask yourself if they pose a risk to the health or safety of others. You have a duty to protect yourself and others from the risks your work creates, even if this is only for a small part of your overall work activity. In practical terms, if you are self-employed you will not have to do anything where there is no risk to others.

Can other people be affected by your work activities? Think about the services that you provide to them, in particular:

  • Your working environment, do you work in a workplace where other people have access? Could you harm their health or safety?
  • The equipment, materials or substances that you use. Could someone be burnt, scalded, crushed, trip over or fall? Does your work activity create noise, dust, fumes? Do you use any materials or substances that could injure someone if they came into contact with them?

If you have answered yes to any of above, then it is likely your work activities may pose a risk to the health and safety of another person and the law will apply to you.

The new guidance contains a section on how to protect lone workers from the risk of work-related violence, information on how managers should keep in touch with lone workers and new advice on the impact lone working can have on stress, mental health and wellbeing.

Lone workers face the same hazards at work as anyone else, but there is a greater risk of these hazards causing harm as they may not have anyone to help or support them if things go wrong. As an employer, you should provide training, supervision, monitoring and support for lone workers.

You can access the new guidance by clicking here.

Sheila Ramshaw is an Associate in the Regulatory Services department at Sintons. To speak to Sheila about this or any other matter, contact her on 0191 226 3739 or Sheila.Ramshaw@sintons.co.uk.

Rural podcast series launched

A series of podcasts is being launched by Sintons’ specialist agriculture and estates team, as they continue to support and interact with the region’s rural community during the ongoing lockdown.

The podcasts will provide regular updates on pertinent issues for families, land and business owners in rural and agricultural settings across the North, continuing Sintons’ reputation for supporting such clients over the course of generations.

The firm has, over its 125-year history, become known as a specialist advisor to the region’s rural communities, supporting families and businesses with many significant events during their lives and journeys.

Now, as Sintons continues to strive to engage and support them despite ongoing social distancing measures, the firm has launched its Rural Roundup, which will see head of agriculture and estates Tom Wills delivering relevant updates.

The specialist agriculture and estates team has already launched a series of initiatives over the past year, to communicate with existing and potential clients during lockdown, including a newsletter and regular commentaries. The podcast series is the latest move in this ongoing effort.

It is also the latest digital innovation from Sintons during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the firm channel significant resources into making information available online and free of charge over the past year.

“Since March last year, while our usual interaction with the rural community has been forced to scale back, we have been absolutely committed to ensuring they know we are here as usual and available to support them whenever, and with whatever, they need,” says Tom.

“We’ve had a great response to our newsletter and the content we’ve produced, and through this Q&A series, we are stepping up the interaction with existing and potential clients as we prepare to emerge from the pandemic and move forward together.

“In doing so, there will be much new guidance and changes to keep on top of, so through our podcasts, we can help people to do that. We look forward to interacting digitally on this project, ahead of hopefully recommencing our traditional face-to-face meetings in the not too distant future.”

A law firm for changing times

While the foundation of Sintons did not occur during a particularly prosperous time for British agriculture, happily we have gone on to enjoy better times since then, with our team being by the sides of farming families and business owners since 1896.

Back in the late 19th century, at a time our economy continued to suffer from the Great Depression of British Agriculture, Sintons was born.

Many a challenge has followed that time for our community – from World Wars to Brexit, climate change to a deadly global pandemic, and seemingly everything between! – but our farmers have remained steadfast and committed to their purpose, and have enabled British agriculture to be an industry we can all be proud of.

And for the past 125 years, Sintons has been proud to have been the trusted advisor to ever-increasing numbers of farming families across Northumberland, Yorkshire, County Durham and Cumbria, turning to us for expert advice and personal service time and again.

This month, we mark our 125th year in business – from starting life as Sutton Cheshire & Thompson on February 8, 1896, we then merged with John H. Sinton & Co in 1971 to become Sinton & Co, and later Sintons.

And while much has changed with the Sintons business, and indeed in the world in general, we have never lost our ethos which many liken to a ‘family business’ – we care deeply about our clients and invest the time to build long-lasting and trusting relationships. We recognise the value of personal service, in addition to the legal excellence our clients expect, and that will always be a staple of our approach.

Over the years, the law around agriculture has changed on many an occasion – as we all know, the sector is subject to much legislation, but there have been a few key points during the past century-and-a-quarter to help create the industry we have now.

The Agriculture Act of 1947 is often cited as revamping agricultural law. Providing food security after the impact of World War 2, it guaranteed prices, markets and tenure, so a farmer could be assured that his land would not be taken away and whatever he grew would be sold at a known price.

That new certainty provided the basis for farmers to grow and invest in their operations with renewed confidence, and many of our clients confirm the kickstarting of the progress of their own family businesses can be traced back to that Act.

The Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1976 marked another far-reaching piece of legislation. This allowed for the succession of agricultural tenancies, so on a farmer’s death, a relative with relevant skills or experience and no holding of his own could inherit the tenancy,  limited to two generations of tenant. Again, in terms of its impact and the renewed security it provided to families, it was a landmark moment for the sector.

The Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 also remains highly significant and important in providing more detail around the operation and curtailment of such rights.

What lies ahead remains to be seen, particularly as we emerge from the ‘double whammy’ of coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crippling effect that has had on the economy straight into the unknown of Brexit.

But our team at Sintons will be by the sides of clients, old and new, to support them through the turbulence, just as we have been for the last 125 years. We are proud to be a law firm for changing times, with our dedication to clients being a constant factor throughout whatever the future may hold.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

‘We’re proud to have helped make Sintons the firm it is’

As Sintons celebrates its 125th anniversary, some of its team share their thoughts and experiences of being part of the firm and playing their role in its growth. From those who have been at Sintons for over 30 years to those who have joined more recently, here they discuss what makes the firm stand out in the competitive legal marketplace, while also being a great place to work.

Amanda Maskery, partner and head of NHS healthcare

“I have been at Sintons now for nearly 20 years and during that time I have progressed from trainee to partner level and more recently to head of our fast-growing NHS Healthcare team. Many of my clients have been with Sintons for years and grown with me and I think a large part of that is because we have built such strong and trusting relationships with them.

The firm has grown significantly since I first started working here – it has doubled in size.  However, the same culture, values and traditions are still imbedded which means whilst the firm changed in size, it still embraces the supportive nurturing culture you only find at Sintons which cascades from the top down.

As I began life as a trainee at Sintons, it’s fantastic to be able to support others in progressing and achieving their goals. We have a strong team and great dynamic and that is evident to our young lawyers who bring with them a refreshing approach to the Sintons culture.”

Leah Greenwell, solicitor apprentice

“Starting my career, it was important to find a firm with local roots and a reputation for providing high quality training. The first-class levels of service Sintons provide is testament to the standard of training they deliver, and there was no question which firm I wanted my career to start in.

Sintons have always focused on ensuring that my development is put first and have laid the foundations for a successful career as a solicitor. Being a full service firm has given me the opportunity to experience all areas of law and has exposed me to a variety of high value and complex work. I look forward to what the future holds for me at Sintons.

Although the marketplace is competitive, Sintons longstanding history and their presence, both locally and nationally, will always place them at the forefront.”

Anne Smith, secretary

“I started at Sintons in 1986 and this year in November will have been here for 35 years.

I still remember my first day like it was yesterday. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and it is still like that today – almost like a second family to me.

“I have mainly worked in private client and worked for lots of fee earners and partners. In 2000 I started working for Steve Freeman who then went on to become a Partner and Head of the Private Client Department. I have now worked for him for 21 years this year and I can honestly say it has been a pleasure and an honour to work for such a lovely man – we have a great working relationship. I also work with the rest of the Family Department and work for such lovely fee earners.

I am also very proud to say that my daughter Emma also works for Sintons in the Conveyancing Department and she also loves her job and the team she works with.

I have seen many changes over the years but one thing remains constant – Sintons is a great place to work. I have made lifelong friends here and they will remain so.”

Emelie Vardon, solicitor

“Sintons’ heritage was very important to me when choosing to join Sintons. I came here as a trainee solicitor in 2017 and making the right choice for my future career was crucial. Knowing Sintons’ reputation and history, I couldn’t have made a better decision.

This is such a great place to work with a warm and welcoming environment. Following the completion of my training contract in 2019, I joined our developing Wills, Trusts and Estate Disputes team. Under Emma Saunders’ excellent leadership and support, my first year as a qualified solicitor has been excellent groundwork for my future career in this specialist area of law.

As a full-service law firm, I consider that Sintons is well-placed in the competitive market.”

Mark Dobbin, partner and head of real estate

“I joined Sintons as a trainee in September 1997. At the time the firm consisted of about 80-90 people. We were operating from an office in Portland Terrace in Jesmond, it was like a rabbit warren for a new starter as it was multiple old terraced houses converted and joined on different floors.

The main changes have been the massive growth in size and expertise, plus multiple office moves until finally landing at the Cube. When I qualified in 1999 myself and the partner at the time (Andrew Walker) were the Sintons commercial property department. Since then we have grown significantly.

Sintons has always been and remains a great place to work, we have an excellent team in Real Estate and will continue to succeed because of the efforts of our staff.”

Pippa Aitken, senior associate

“Sintons was much smaller when I joined in 1998. It was a friendly, family firm renowned for its reputation in private client and personal injury work. There was no dedicated corporate and commercial department.

“I was the only trainee and was sent on all sorts of weird and wonderful jobs – witnessing wills, attending infant settlements and the odd trip to the bank for the accounts department!

Sintons has become a lot more sophisticated in its working procedures and there is a much faster pace of life with emails being the most popular form of communication. I have seen some great lawyers leave and some great lawyers arrive but everyone soon seems to inherit the ‘old’ Sintons sense of fun, respect and teamwork.

Sintons is in a great place going forward. Virtual working has opened up some great opportunities to spread our wings and engage with clients even better than before.”

Sarah Smith, partner and head of licensing

“The firm has almost doubled in size since I started in  2005. The range of services offered by the firm has expanded quite significantly since then too, making the firm much more attractive to commercial clients.

When I first came to Sintons, I headed up the department with Lucy Winskell (now chair of NELEP and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Northumbria University). Since her departure I have headed it up myself. In spite of that, the department has grown in its client base and the amount of work we deal with on an annual basis.

With the growth in size and services we continue to see, I think Sintons are very well placed in the market to take advantage of opportunities going forward.”

Astrid Stevenson, secretary

“I joined Sintons on 21 October, 1997, and will have been here for 25 years this year.

I think when I started there were only about 80 people working at Sintons. We were based in Portland Terrace then moved to Osborne Terrace. We didn’t have open plan working like we have now, we had little rooms with approximately 3 secretaries in each room. I shared a room with Anne Smith from the first day I arrived and we have been firm friends ever since. Fee earners all had their own office. Basically, it was like a rabbit warren.

The staffing levels were very much smaller then, as I say about 80 staff then and now we have more than double that number. The computer system (Word Perfect 5.1) and equipment were top of the range for the time, and I think that has carried on until this day, our IT department have the latest of everything and are basically top notch.

Since I started 25 years ago, the firm has changed and has always moved forward with the times.  When I started there were no female partners. Hilary Parker and Karen Simms became the first, which was a very welcome breakthrough for Sintons.

We were like one big happy family with lots of social events, which thankfully still happen to this day, keeping the ethos of Sintons going.

I think if I didn’t enjoy working here I wouldn’t be celebrating my 25th years this year at Sintons. I’ve worked for the head of dispute resolution Angus Ashman for 24 of those years, and I think we work well together because we work as a team.

This is a very nice place to work, the people are all friendly and If anyone needs help with anything there is always someone there to help. I always think we are only as good as the tools we work with and I must say Sintons do provide all the best equipment and people and it makes the job so much easier if you have things like that in place.”

Sintons’ development – reflections from the Chairman

Sintons’ chairman, Alan Dawson, is one of the firm’s longest-serving people, having joined in 1980. Here, he shares his thoughts on some of the biggest changes and advances he has seen in the past 41 years.

Technology

When I joined in 1980, we used manual typewriters, although thankfully electric typewriters had recently become available. There were no screens at that time, but over the years we added one-line screens to the typewriters, then that went up to three or four lines. It was the early 1990s before we introduced computers.

There were no colour photocopiers so all of the plans we copied were in black and white. We would have to go over them with coloured pens to make them the same as the original.

The introduction of fax in the 80s was a game changer, everything before then was done by Telex or telegram if we needed ‘instant’ communication. The only problem was that due to the paper fax machines used at that time, the print would fade – we’d go back to the file six months later and the sheet would be completely blank! We had to remember to photocopy the fax when they came in for use in our records.

With property completions, all bank-to-bank transfers involved getting an actual cheque from the bank, and then going to the office of the other solicitor in the transaction to inspect the deeds and then complete the deal. Fridays, the traditional completion day, were often spent going between solicitors’ offices in Newcastle.

When mobile phones were introduced, we had one mobile for the firm to use, we didn’t have one each. It was one of the brick-like phones with a huge battery, but it was a huge novelty.

Thankfully things have moved on hugely, and Sintons now has a first-rate technology and IT infrastructure, which enables us to offer a very efficient service to our clients while keeping their data fully secure.

Size of the firm

Back in 1980, we had about 36 people – now we have around 170.

We really started to grow from the mid to late 90s, and in 1998 we moved our offices from Portland Terrace in Jesmond to bigger premises in Osborne Terrace, which comprised three and a half houses next to each other with an overspill office further down the road. We imagined that would give us room to grow for the next 15 years – but within the next two or three years, it was already too small.

We came to The Cube in 2004 and at first didn’t use the top floor of our four-floor building, although within the next couple of years we had expanded into there.

Over the years, we have added many outstanding lawyers to our team, both through recruitment from other firms as well as training young people-in house. Our commitment to supporting aspiring lawyers through their training contract has been unfaltering – I joined as an articled clerk (or trainee, as it’s now known) and have progressed through the ranks.

As the firm has grown then so too has our back-office and support functions developed. We didn’t have the infrastructure we have now, so no HR, IT or marketing department.

Our accounts system was all manual, the cashier had to write everything by hand. There was one card per client, so if you had to borrow it, then they couldn’t make any more entries for that client until you returned it.

Our HR function was our office manager, who kept a record of who was off and the reasons for their absence – reading it now, some of the reasons are quite amusing!

Law firms weren’t allowed to advertise at all until the late 1980s, so the only kind of marketing we could do was through the Yellow Pages. Now, we operate at the very forefront of the sector, adopting digital way before many of our competitors, and that early investment is helping us to stay ahead in the marketplace.

Practice areas

In the 1980s when I joined, Sintons had a very significant insurance litigation practice which acted for four or five of the major national insurers. The revenue from that area of the business probably accounted for two thirds of our entire income. However, in the early 1990s, we recognised that reliance on a few large clients or a particular work stream was not the best way to develop the firm and could make us vulnerable. We therefore made concerted efforts to radically change our business model and to further grow the other practice areas we had operated in for many years, including private client, corporate and commercial and real estate, and they proved to be areas of strong development for us. They continue to be key areas of the business for us and will be central to our ongoing progress as a firm.

We also moved into claimant personal injury work, which really took off in the late 90s and early 2000s. More recently, we have developed our national reputation as specialists in catastrophic and serious personal injury work with a thriving specialist neurotrauma department which handles life-changing brain and spinal cord injury work.

National reach

In the early days, we were more of a regional firm with clients mainly across the North East, and some in the wider North. Occasionally, clients moved to elsewhere in England which helped us to reach out nationally on a small scale, but we didn’t have much of a national reach.

However, as we grew as a firm, we started to work on a more national basis and now on an international basis as well. The improvement of technology was also an important factor in enabling us to communicate with people wherever they were by phone or fax, but more recently by mobile phone, email or even video calling which has proved so important during the pandemic.

Through our efforts to grow individual areas of the business – which in many instances have demonstrated substantial growth over the course of a number of years, underpinned by the hard work of our people – we have been able to add outstanding new lawyers to the team, whether they have moved to Sintons from elsewhere or have been trained in-house.

Now, we have a number of areas of the business which are regarded in the highest terms nationally, including our healthcare team, which has grown its presence over the past 10 to 15 years to become a national leader in its field.

We continue to receive growing numbers of instructions from across the UK and wider afield in almost all areas of the business, as our capability and reputation as a firm builds further still.

Building on our heritage to create a strong future

1896 marked a year of historic new beginnings and breakthroughs.

The year that saw the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens;

The introduction of the X-ray;

The development of the first Ford vehicle, the Quadricycle.

And in such a landmark year as 1896, with events taking place which went on to change history, it is fitting that this was the year when Sintons was founded and the foundations laid for the firm that it would become.

Having been founded as Sutton Cheshire & Thompson on February 8, 1896, to serve the people of Newcastle, the firm then merged with John H. Sintons & Co in 1971 – later becoming Sintons – and has grown into one of the leading law firms in the North of England, acting for ever-increasing numbers of business and private clients both regionally and across the UK.

Over the past 125 years, Sintons has developed a reputation for the quality of its advice, and crucially, the deep and trusting relationships it builds with its clients borne out of the outstanding service it delivers to them.

There are so many momentous events and developments which have taken place over such a long period of time and the world has changed, and continues to change, beyond recognition.

However, throughout that period Sintons has been working alongside individuals, families, businesses and organisations for 125 years, adapting and changing to meet new challenges and will continue to do so for the years to come.

As a law firm for changing times, Sintons continues to evolve, as it has done since 1896, to ensure it stays at the forefront of the legal market and in the best possible position to deliver excellence to its clients.

“Over the past 125 years, we have continually shown we are innovators, we are leaders. We have never been afraid to take bold decisions,” says Christopher Welch, managing partner of Sintons.

“A great example of this is when we invested in our head office, The Cube, in 2004. We were moving to an area of the city which was largely undeveloped and were, largely, surrounded by the old Scottish and Newcastle plant. Looking around us now, this is a thriving, fast-growing and sought-after area, which is the site of huge investment from both business and academia. We had the foresight to buy into these brave future plans and the ambition to want to become part of it.

“In these changing times, we will continue to evolve and develop, as we have done throughout our history, to ensure that at all times we are delivering the very best service to all our clients while also building and investing in the firm from within.

“We have stood the test of time for 125 years and are committed to ensuring Sintons maintains the reputation and presence that has been built so carefully into the future.”

For Christopher, who joined Sintons in 2003, the main differentiator between Sintons and its competitors is its unfaltering commitment to clients.

While continuing to attract new clients nationally, the firm is rightly proud of its longstanding client base, which includes many who have been with Sintons through multiple generations of their family or business ownership.

“The firm’s absolute priority from day one has been our clients and ensuring they receive the highest standards of legal and personal service. Our reputation is built on those foundations, which were laid by our previous generations of Sintons’ lawyers, and is one we are proud to continue to develop further,” says Christopher.

“At Sintons, we care about what we do, how we do it and we never forget that the clients we are working with are depending on us for, often, some of the most momentous decisions of their lives. As a firm, we recognise both the privilege and the responsibility that goes with this, it is fundamental to how we work and to our values as a business.

“Our clients are the front, back and centre of everything we do. We’ve been there for them whenever they’ve needed us for 125 years and that will continue to be the case as we move forward.”

And building further on its reputation for leading the way in the legal marketplace, Sintons continues to innovate to stand out from the crowd.

Having carried out a full rebrand in early 2020, to give the firm a fresh yet timeless identity, Sintons continues to invest in its future.

“Our rebrand was a significant step for the firm,” says Christopher. “Our branding represents the firm that we are; bold, innovative and providing clear and confident advice to our clients – a firm that stands out from the crowd.

“The use of technology to better serve our clients has always been an essential part of our growth strategy. Our founding partners would be aghast at the thought that we were able to have virtually all our colleagues working remotely – with some as far away as the Cayman Islands and Texas – without any impact on client service.

“By investing heavily in our website and online presence, we have created a resource which is available to clients wherever they are in the UK or indeed the world, giving them immediate access to information and support in ways which weren’t available before.

“The legal sector isn’t always the first to embrace change, but we are rightfully proud of the reputation we have built for standing out in that respect. For 125 years, we have taken bold moves, we have never shied away from making investment to equip the business for the long-term, and we have shown foresight and innovation to make the firm what it is today.

“This is a landmark anniversary for us, and in uncertain times, the investment we have made for many years in our infrastructure, development of our people and strategic recruitment means we remain confident in our future and the service we can continue to provide to our clients and to the regional community of which we are a fundamental part.

“These truly are changing times – but with 125 years behind us then we must be doing something right!  We know that our business will continue to evolve, with further investments in technology and infrastructure changing how and where we work. However, as we move forward, what is clear is that Sintons will always be right there, by the side of our clients, as we have been since 1896.”

Law firm Sintons is marking its 125th anniversary

Since its foundation in 1896, Sintons has grown to become one of the leading law firms in the North of England with a client base which extends across the whole UK.

It has become known as a key advisor to businesses and individuals acting on major, complex matters, regionally, nationally and internationally.

In many of its practice areas, including business, healthcare, private client and neurotrauma, Sintons is regarded as one of the UK’s leading specialist advisors.

Sintons has built a well-deserved reputation for delivering expert legal advice and outstanding service to every client, which is at the heart of the trusting and long-lasting relationships it has built during the past 125 years.

Testament to the quality of service provided is the fact that many of the firm’s clients have been with Sintons for decades, with the firm routinely being trusted to advise multiple generations of families and business owners.

Now, in its 125th year, and despite the ongoing challenges being presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sintons remains confident in its future as the firm continues to develop and grow.

The firm can trace its roots back to the formation of Sutton Cheshire & Thompson on February 8, 1896, which merged with John H. Sinton & Co in 1971 to become Sinton & Co, and later Sintons.

The expansion of the amalgamated firm has seen it move offices a number of times in order to house its growing number of employees, moving from Portland Terrace in Jesmond to bigger premises in Osborne Terrace which were soon outgrown, resulting in the relocation in 2004 to its current purpose-built home, The Cube, opposite St James’ Park in Newcastle. A second site was added with the opening of a consulting office in York two years ago to help the firm service its increasing demand for work from around Yorkshire.

The move in 2004 acted as a springboard in the development of Sintons, with many people not having realised how big the firm had grown and heralded a period of strong growth across the firm as a whole, with legal talent continually added to build its expertise and capability further still.

This has been backed by continued investment in its IT infrastructure, digital offering and people, to ensure Sintons is well positioned for the future.

“We are very proud of the reputation we have built over the past 125 years, which has seen us become known on a national scale as a law firm of the highest capability which is absolutely dedicated to its clients,” says Christopher Welch, managing partner of Sintons.

“We have never been afraid to be leaders and to take bold decisions, which have frequently put us at the very forefront of the legal sector. We were, for example, building our online presence and digital business development platforms way ahead of our competitors and long before it was something that was embraced widely within the legal sector.

“Going forward, we are in a strong position, having built on the heritage and legacy of Sintons over the past 125 years to create a law firm with a national reach, regarded in the highest terms for the quality of both our legal and personal client service.

“This is a very significant milestone for us as a business, and while we reach it during some of the most challenging economic conditions in the country’s history, we remain confident in the future of Sintons.”

Moving forward in 2021 – a Rural update with Tom Wills

As we get to grips with 2021 and look to hopefully a happier, healthier and more prosperous year ahead, now is a good time to start getting plans in place and affairs in order, to ensure you, your family and business can be in the best possible position to get on with post-pandemic life.

While admittedly 2021 so far hasn’t been too dissimilar to the bulk of 2020, and we’re now in the third lengthy national lockdown since COVID-19 arrived last March, the development of a vaccine – which has so far been given to millions of people across the country, with more vaccinated every day – means we can hopefully look forward to the not-too-distant future with some confidence.

And while we do so, and look forward to such times when we can meet our loved ones, support our local businesses and help get back to something like ‘normal’ (whatever that was!), this marks an ideal opportunity to get prepared for what lies ahead.

This promises to be another year of challenges for our farmers and rural businesses, with the ongoing impact of the pandemic and the yet-to-be-fully-discovered minefield of Brexit. But by considering now what lies ahead and establishing what needs to be done, and what advice and support should be sought, you will be doing all you can to ensure 2021 and beyond can be a better period than the one we have just endured.

While by no means an exhaustive list, the following are some of the matters you should consider for the year ahead. By having these on your radar, taking action if necessary and being prepared, you can be in as strong a position as possible:

  • Ongoing effects of COVID-19 – as we don’t know yet when it is going to end, is there anything more you can do to maximise trade during a period of closure? Can you do anything more online, which can be continued post-pandemic? You don’t want to look back on this period as wasted time, so forward plan and prepare as much as possible
  • Brexit – do you know how you and your business will be affected? Be sure to have taken any steps to enable a smooth transition to allow any trade relationships you have with the EU to proceed. Ensure you know how the new import/export processes work for such time as you will need them – it may well be you need to take action in advance of that
  • Agriculture Act 2020 – this promises to be a transformational change and could bring opportunities as well as challenges, but is absolutely something you should be familiar with and how the new introductions affect your operation. Have you invested the time to understand its implications and seek advice and clarification if needed?
  • Tourism – while tourism during 2020 was decimated by the pandemic, we can only hope the forthcoming summer will enable businesses to throw open their doors and make up for lost time. Do you have plans in place for reopening? Are you geared up to take advantage of demand? There is huge potential for staycations this year, and with people committed to supporting independent businesses, so ensure you have taken all necessary steps to reap the full rewards
  • Protecting your future – the pandemic has been a ghastly reminder that none of us know what the future holds and what uncertainties await, so many people have taken the opportunity over the past few months to make and update succession plans. Do you have a will and is it up to date? Will your business and assets pass to those who you want it to? Now marks a good time to ensure you have such plans in place, to give you and your family as much certainty as possible going forward.

As ever, our specialist team at Sintons will be by your side as we deal with the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and we’ll support you every step of the way as we rebuild our communities and economy. Please get in touch if there is anything we can do to assist.

Let’s work together to rebuild in 2021

The past year has been an extremely challenging period for us all – but now more than ever we need to continue to work together to rebuild in 2021 and beyond.

The economic challenges have been particularly difficult for our rural communities, as those families and businesses who rely on farming and agriculture, as well as tourism, have seen unprecedented struggles.

The peak periods of summer and Easter, which are so important to tourism businesses as families travel from across the UK to our wonderful region, have been largely decimated in terms of tourism, creating genuine struggles for many who depend on this trade.

The ongoing lockdown and forced closures of hospitality venues, and possibility of the introduction of Tier 4 at some point after Christmas, mean the conditions will remain tough for many months ahead. And now probably isn’t the time to even mention the likely impact of Brexit!

But together, we can get through this. Through supporting each other, we can strengthen the foundations for future growth which have been so tested during 2020.

Supporting our local businesses has never been more important, and I would urge everyone to get behind our family-owned and independent ventures, the lifeblood of so many communities whose existence depends on us enabling them to rebuild.

Over the past few months, our rural team at Sintons have supported so many families and businesses in protecting their futures. From enabling people to make wills and make provision for future generations, to supporting businesses with their rights and obligations through the Job Retention Scheme and the complexities around furlough leave, we have again been there for our rural communities.

For 124 years, our specialist advisors have supported our rural communities and we will continue to do so into the future – we’ll be by their side every step of the way giving the guidance they need.

But for now, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and send you my best wishes for the festive season. May it be a happy and healthy period for you and your family, and let’s all hope 2021 is a much less eventful year for us all! The prospect of holidays over the festive period and the positive vibes of changes in 2021 are hopefully enough to spur us all on and maintain strength.

* Tom Wills is head of agriculture and estates at Sintons. He and the team continue to work as normal during the pandemic and are contactable at all times.

Please contact Tom on tom.wills@sintons.co.uk or (0191) 226 3796.

Wide-ranging specialism of agriculture and estates team praised by Legal 500

The agriculture and estates team at Sintons has again been confirmed as a leading advisor in the North of England in its specialist field by Legal 500 2021.

The team, which handles matters throughout the North East, North Yorkshire and Cumbria, was praised for its specialism in a wide range of niche areas.

Its wide variety of clients – ranging from farmers, rural businesses, estates, landowners and investors – and strong professional links were also hailed by Legal 500.

Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates, and partner Paul Liddle – a specialist in energy, waste and renewables – were both named as key names in the sector.

Sintons is regularly instructed in matters of great significance and complexity, with recent matters including the gift of Carrawburgh Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall to the nation, in a transaction which attracted national attention.

Christopher Welch, managing partner of Sintons, said: “For many years, often spanning generations, Sintons has been known as a high-regarded and trusted name in the rural and agricultural community for the specialist advice we are able to give to families and businesses. We have a deep knowledge and understanding of our region’s rural communities and are continually appointed to act on their behalf through our absolute commitment to delivering the highest standards of legal advice and personal service.

“To again win recognition for this from Legal 500 is very pleasing and is a rightful endorsement of the work of Tom and his team in growing Sintons’ presence in this very specialist sector even further.”

Have you Health & Safety risk assessed your shoot?

 

Some years, at around this time of year, I write an article extolling everybody to ensure that their Shoot Health & Safety Risk Assessment is in place and properly updated prior to the season beginning. I normally reinforce the point by highlighting some ghastly accident that took place the season before and stress that updating an existing assessment is a simple exercise. Not so this year!

Like all operations, shoots will need to ensure that they have a comprehensive COVID-19 risk assessment in place alongside the normal document. As the Prime Minister has said that he hopes everything will be back to near normal by November, it may be tempting to delay the work in the hope that it is not necessary. However, given what is currently occurring around the world, it would seem sensible to begin the planning process well in advance. If the regulations ease, it is simple to adjust the plan. If they don’t, you are prepared.

Given the nature of shooting, being part work and part pleasure, it does not fit terribly well into any of the Government’s pigeon holes. As things stand, outdoor socialising is limited to groups of only 6 people. More are allowed if the group consists of people from only two households. It is currently against the law for gatherings of more than 30 people to take place in private homes, including outdoors.

Consideration should be given as to how and when people will arrive at the shoot, including how they will be properly briefed on COVID issues and sanitisation facilities provided. It may well be worth segregating the different groups of shoot personnel (ie guns, beaters and pickers up) to limit the possibility of cross infection. Names and contact details should be recorded and stored for at least 21 days in case they are required for “Track and Trace” purposes.

Movement around the shoot is another area of concern. Ideally, everybody should walk throughout the day, but this will not be practical for all. Beaters should be transported in accordance with COVID guidelines. Guns and pickers up should ideally travel in their own vehicles. This may cause its own issues – do they have suitable vehicles and can additional vehicles be accommodated safely?

What about lunch? Indoor socialising is still restricted to no more than two households. Other areas of concern include no sharing of equipment, interaction with the public, tipping, game handling and distribution.

The above is not designed as a comprehensive list of what needs to be covered, but should hopefully provide some food for thought. The representative bodies are working with Government and should produce up-to-date guidance as the situation changes. So do keep abreast of the situation but do not simply ignore it and hope for the best.

The importance of succession planning for your family farm

The COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty and devastation it has caused – for families, businesses and the whole economy – has resulted in a significant rise in the numbers of people looking to make plans for their future.

The unprecedented circumstances of the past few weeks have wreaked havoc across the country, with the numbers of COVID-19 fatalities tragically rising by the day and growing levels of businesses battling for survival. These have been truly traumatic times indeed.

However, as we now emerge from lockdown and look at returning to some form of ‘normality’ (whatever that will look like in the post-pandemic period) the focus for many has been shifted from focusing on the immediate future to now also include planning for the longer-term.

Succession planning for the future of the family farm or business has always been of the utmost importance, but many people are now taking action and putting provision in place for such time as they are no longer here. Certainly by making plans now, there are significant tax efficiencies that can be made, particularly with regard to Inheritance Tax (IHT).

A good place to start is by making a will. By doing so, you can help avoid potential disputes that may arise through the rules of intestacy (the rules that apply to your estate if you die without making a will). Under these rules, if you are survived by, for example, your spouse and children, your spouse will be entitled to receive the first £250,000, your personal possessions and half of whatever is left. Depending on the value of your estate, this could leave the spouse vulnerable if they do not inherit the whole estate and attract an IHT liability as the assets passing to the children will not be covered under the spousal exemption rules.

Furthermore, if some of the children are involved in the family farming business, and others are not, it could lead to disputes within the family, especially if some of them need to raise money to buy out their siblings who do not an interest in the future of the farm.

Another important factor in making a will is that you can have the opportunity to review the structure of the business and legal documents behind how the farm is operating. For example, there may be partnership deeds or shareholder agreements in place, or tenancies and grazing licences, which you can examine and revisit as necessary, particularly those which have been in place for some time.

By planning for your future, you can also review the IHT position of the farm and whether your interest would qualify for Agricultural Property Relief (APR). APR is a generous relief available if certain conditions are met. APR is a relief available on the agricultural value of agricultural property. If the conditions are met, APR can minimise the amount of IHT payable on death.

Briefly, APR is available on transfers of land occupied for the purposes of agriculture, together with appropriate buildings and farmhouses used in conjunction with that land. The property in question must have been either occupied by the owner for the purposes of agriculture for two years prior to the transfer, or owned by you for seven years and occupied by someone else for the purposes of agriculture throughout that period

It is often assumed that your farmhouse will automatically qualify for APR if the land is being farmed, but if you are no longer able to farm through ill health or retirement, this can present problems. Similarly, if you are living in the house, but you have let all of your land out to tenants, this could impact on the level of IHT payable, although through careful financial planning this can be mitigated as much as possible.

Any grazing licence arrangement that you have should also be considered to ensure the conditions for occupation are met. Although the land is grazed by someone else, you will want to ensure you are still deemed to be the occupier for the land to qualify for APR. Retaining responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the land is also essential to prove the conditions for occupation are met.

These past few months have been difficult for us all, but the renewed focus it has placed on the importance of future planning has been one positive to emerge. By putting together a succession plan for you and your family, which is then revisited and updated as necessary, this can ensure your farm passes as you wish after your death with your family being able to benefit from the maximum tax efficiencies.

Sintons has advised families on succession planning for over 120 years, and has looked after the futures of several generations of farming families across the North. Please speak to us for any support you may need in putting these vital plans in place.

* Tom Wills is head of agriculture and estates at Sintons and a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association. To speak to him about this or any other matter, please contact Tom on tom.wills@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 3796.

Lease Code 2020: a move toward making the legal drafting process more efficient

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) have announced the introduction of the Code for Leasing Business Premises, England and Wales, 1st edition (the “Lease Code 2020”) to take effect from 1 September 2020.

The Lease Code 2020 is intended to “to improve the quality and fairness of negotiations on lease terms and to promote the issue of comprehensive heads of terms that should make the legal drafting process more efficient”.

What lettings will the Lease Code 2020 apply to?

The Lease Code 2020 will apply to most lettings of business premises in England and Wales other than:

  1. Agricultural lettings;
  2. Premises used as advertising hoardings or for plant / equipment;
  3. Premises which will be wholly underlet by the tenant;
  4. Leases of less than 6 months in length.

Is the Lease Code 2020 binding?

The Lease Code 2020 replaces the Code for Leasing Business Premises in England and Wales 2007 (the “Lease Code 2007”).  Whilst the Lease Code 2007, which was a voluntary set of “best practice” standards to be followed in lease negotiations, the Lease Code 2020 is a Professional Statement, certain elements of which will be mandatory and binding on RICS members or RICS regulated firms.

Mandatory elements of the Lease Code 2020

The mandatory elements of the Lease Code 2020 are set out in part 2 and provide:

  1. Parties must adopt a constructive and collaborative approach to Lease negotiations;
  2. Where a party to a Lease negotiation is not represented by a RICS member or other property professional they must be advised of the existence of the Lease Code 2020 and its supplemental guidance, and must be advised to seek professional advice;
  3. A landlord or their letting agent must ensure that Heads of Terms containing a minimum level of detail are produced for all new lettings, before the initial draft lease is circulated. The Heads of Terms must contain a minimum level of detail to allow parties to decide whether to enter into the lease, and the Lease Code 2020 contains a template set Heads of Terms which can be utilised for these purposes.

Best practice elements of the Lease Code 2020

The remainder of the Lease Code 2020 sets out best practice standards that should be followed by RICS members / RICS regulated firms in the preparation and negotiation of leases. Whilst such standards are not mandatory, and parties are able to depart from them, RICS may require them to justify any such departure.

Notable matters include:

  1. Break Options – unless otherwise specifically agreed at Heads of Terms stage a tenants break option should be conditional on payment of rent and returning the Property free of subtenant’s / occupiers only. Any stricter conditions require specific agreement.
  2. Rent Deposits – rent deposit agreements should provide that the landlord will hold the rent deposit in an account designated for holding rent deposits only. They should also specify whether the deposit is held as security for the tenants obligation to pay rent only, or to cover all obligations under the lease.
  3. Rent Reviews – where a lease is to contain a rent review the basis of the review should be notified to the tenant at the outset, so they can take early advice as to the implications. The lease should allow either party to start the rent review process.
  4. Underletting – leases should allow tenants to sublet the whole, or part (if appropriate) with landlord consent, and should allow tenants to charge a lease without landlord consent unless the underlease is to contain step-in rights for the lender.
  5. Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 – where a lease is to be excluded from the security of tenure provisions of the Landlord & Tenant Act the tenant should be informed of this at the very outset, to allow them sufficient time to take advice on the implications.
  6. Service Charge – service charge provisions should be drafted to conform with the RICS Professional Statement “Service Charge in Commercial Property”.
  7. Reinstatement – unless an absolute requirement is specifically agreed at Heads of Terms stage landlords should only require a tenant to remove any alterations at the end of the term where it is “reasonable” for them to do so.
  8. Uninsured Damage – leases should allocate responsibility for damage caused by uninsured risks (as well as insured).
  9. Forfeiture – landlords should allow tenants a chance to remedy any default (without loss to the landlord) before seeking to forfeit a lease.

Conclusion

Increased engagement by all parties at negotiation stage is to be welcomed, and the introduction of a “checklist” of matters to be included within Heads of Terms will streamline the process of drafting documentation for solicitors.  From a practical perspective the best practice elements of the Lease Code 2020 will require landlords to engage with their agents at an early stage, to ensure due consideration is given to covenants / obligations that they may previously have taken for granted.

However, given the Lease Code will not be binding on non-RICS members, unless adopted more widely as an industry standard, the practical impact of the changes may be more limited in the short term.

To view a copy of the Lease Code please click here.

For further information, or to arrange a review of documentation to ensure it remains compliant with the Lease Code 2020 please contact Danielle Dale at Sintons on 0191 226 7854 or danielle.dale@sintons.co.uk.

A Q&A with Sintons and Knight Frank

Senior Associates Louise Kelly and Danielle Dale from the Real Estate team at Sintons and Ashleigh Tokarski, Associate Surveyor with Knight Knight in Newcastle, who specialises in residential property development, recently recorded a joint Q&A podcast.

This podcast discusses the effect of COVID-19 on the development market with the aim of assisting clients and developers in these challenging market times, with the continuing political and economic pressures around the property market.

Potential challenges post death

Succession planning is important for a number of reasons, including a consideration of tax efficiencies. It is also important to consider whether there is a risk of any dispute arising after your death regarding your estate and, if so, how this risk might be reduced.

In England and Wales a person can leave their estate to who they like. However, if this creates a disgruntled or disappointed party then a lengthy and costly dispute could arise. In this article we consider what might be done in order to avoid this. The most common types of dispute after a person’s death are:

  1. Challenges to the validity of a will;
  2. Claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975;
  3. Proprietary Estoppel claims; and
  4. Administration disputes.

Will challenges

Challenges to the validity of a will are most often brought by those who expect to be included as a beneficiary in that will, but are not (such as an estranged child) and who would receive more from the estate under an earlier will, or by the laws of intestacy. Will challenges are generally brought on the basis that the person making the will either lacked the testamentary capacity to do so, did not know or approve the contents of the will, or was unduly influenced into making it. In the current Covid-19 pandemic other concerns have been raised about people making homemade wills, or executing (signing) wills without the assistance of a solicitor, which could lead to such wills not being valid.

Involving a solicitor in the preparation and execution of your will can help to address these potential challenges. You may be advised to obtain a medical report from your GP or other medical professional which can be used at to fend off any challenge on the grounds of mental capacity. Further, if your solicitor can demonstrate that they explained the clauses of the will to you, whether in writing or person (or both) this can assist in showing knowledge and approval of the will. With regards to undue influence your solicitor may ask to see you alone, without any of the beneficiaries present. Again, a later confirmation of this can be used in defence of any will made. If you are making a will while in self-isolation a solicitor can help guide you to do this properly, particularly in relation to appropriate witnesses and executing the will.

Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 claims

Inheritance Act claims are for reasonable financial provision from a person’s estate. They can be brought by spouses, former spouses, cohabiting partners, children, someone treated as a child of the family (such as a step-child) or by dependants “maintained by the deceased”. In order to reduce the risk of such a claim on your estate you need to consider carefully who you are providing for in your will, and just as importantly, who you are not. If you are giving financial assistance to someone you need to take advice about the contents of your will. You also need to keep your will under review and, if your personal circumstances change, seek advice from a solicitor about how to address this.

Proprietary Estoppel claims

The type of estate dispute most commonly associated with farming families is proprietary estoppel claims. If you make a promise to someone that they will receive property and that person reasonably relies on that promise to their detriment, they may seek to claim on your estate if the promise is not fulfilled. One example could be a child working on the family farm for reduced pay due to assurances that they will inherit the farm on the death of their parents. A later fall out could lead to the farm being left to someone else. In this instance a court may order that the farm passes to the claimant. Each case turns on its own facts.

For these reasons it is important to be open about any promises made. You may wish to sit down with your family and discuss your intentions. You should take legal advice about the necessary steps needed to put any plans into action, such as partnership agreements or declarations of trust.

Administration disputes

Often disputes can arise in the administration of an estate after someone’s death. It could be between the personal representatives appointed, between the personal representatives and beneficiaries, or between beneficiaries themselves. There could be a disagreement about the assets in the estate, whether there have been any lifetime gifts or whether assets have been correctly valued. For these reasons it assists if you keep a record of your assets and any lifetime gifts made.

You should consider carefully who to appoint as executor when making a will. If you do not make a will then the right to administer your estate will fall in accordance with court rules, so could be your spouse or children. If there is a risk of a dispute arising after your death you may want to consider the appointment of an independent third party, such as a solicitor, who can remain neutral when dealing with the estate. Sintons have the Sintons Trust Corporation who can also be appointed as an independent personal representative or trustee.

The importance of seeking advice

Estate disputes appear to be on the rise, but that does not mean that certain steps can’t be taken to try and avoid them, as indicated above. It is important to seek advice and be open with your solicitor about your own personal circumstances, so that they can best advise you about how to deal with any potential issues that could arise after your death. It is easy to put this off and hope that everything will be okay when you are gone. However, the costs of taking advice during your lifetime will be significantly lower than those incurred by your intended beneficiaries at a later date, should a dispute arise. It is better for all concerned to seek to address any possible issues during your lifetime.

Collaborative Practice and Farming Divorces

What is Collaborative Practice in Family Law

Using the collaborative process to resolve issues that arise when a relationship breaks down, involves each party instructing a collaborative lawyer and the lawyers and the couple making a commitment at the outset, not to go to Court.  Instead they agree to resolve their issues by way of a series of four-way meetings and there are discussions round a table with each party having a collaborative lawyer at their side.

This is a holistic and team approach and involves the couple trying to look at the family as a whole rather than resolving issues by just looking at their own point of view. This approach enables the team to be able to work creatively and think outside the box. This means that hopefully the couple will keep lines of communication open going forward, which will be particularly beneficial where there are children involved.

Why is this suitable in a Farming divorce?

Farming divorces can be particularly complex.

  • Often it is not clear how the assets are held or who owns the assets. They may be held in a partnership, be part of a limited company of held subject to a Will Trust. In a farming divorce often where assets have been passed down through generations, the documentation may not be in order and it may be difficult to build up a clear picture of the assets
  • Properties comprised in the business may be subject to subject to tenancies, agricultural restrictions and complicated restrictive covenants
  • There may be other family members who are partners or shareholders and they may live on the land owned by the business and they may require separate legal advice.
  • If any final settlement does not take into account third party interests, going down a more traditional route might involve third parties and other family members becoming involved in Court proceedings. Apart from being stressful and causing acrimony between the couple and other family members, this can be expensive and delay matters being resolved.
  • As well as tangible assets, there may be intangible assets that need to be valued. This could include for example intangible assets such a single farm payment.  Consideration now will also have to be given as to the impact of Brexit.
  • There may be complex tax implications, such as benefits by transferring property not classed as a main residence, in the tax year of separation.  Conversely there may be arguments for delaying any separation or for delaying proceedings until the next tax year.
  • Often farming businesses are capital rich and cash poor. A priority will always be to try and maintain the business but inevitably a financial settlement is likely to involve a payment to one party. Consideration has to be given as to how this can be achieved within the context of the business.

Using the collaborative process

If a couple in a farming divorce are unable to work together and negotiate a settlement it is likely that proceedings will be issued at Court.  This can result in protracted, acrimonious and very expensive litigation, with the outcome being somewhat of a lottery.

The collaborative approach means the couple keep control. It also enables other professionals to be brought in to advise and assist.  In farming divorces, it is important to establish a team in addition to the lawyers to include land valuers, accountants, agricultural advisers and financial advisers.

The team can build up a full picture of all of the assets and look at a settlement that provides for the optimum use of the assets for the benefit of both parties within the context of what the law says.

Lawyers still work within the “shadow of the law” because when settlement is reached, the Court will still be asked to approve the settlement and convert the agreement into a binding Court Order.

This means that inherited assets for example are not ignored as the law says they have to be considered, provided needs can be satisfied. As part of the discussions round the table, the couple will both hear information as to how the law is to be applied in their particular case.

The collaborative process, enables, the team to be more creative. There can be discussions about, Can the farm diversity or sell land to raise cash? Can a party be paid in instalments over a number of years to prevent an adverse effect on the farming business? What are the options for raising capital? These discussions will be open and transparent and look at the options and implications for both parties

When any marriage breaks down, emotions run high.  The party in the weaker financial position may feel emotionally and financially vulnerable and feel they want to go on the “offensive” to try and protect his or her future financial security.

The party in the stronger financial position particularly if they have inherited the farming business, will feel very protective and “defensive” and reluctant to relinquish assets and be mindful of protecting the family business.

With the right attitude and support, through the collaborative process, both these positions can be secured. Collaborative lawyers can’t wave a magic wand, but they can assist the couple reach an agreement they “can live with” going forward. There is no such thing as a “good divorce”, but hopefully reaching an agreement through the collaborative process will have wide reaching and long-term benefits for the family as a whole.

Elizabeth Gallagher is a collaborative lawyer and a Consultant in the family team at Sintons. She is also part of the Rural Team comprising of a number of specialist lawyers at Sintons who advise on all aspects of agriculture, estates and rural type matters.

Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector

As we emerge from lockdown and the property sector begins to show positive signs of movement, landlords must make themselves familiar with changes which have taken effect during the past few weeks.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the current continual changes in guidance and easing of restrictions, the introduction of the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations 2020, which took effect on June 1, may easily have been overlooked.

The regulations cover electrical safety standards in the private rental sector, and apply to both short and long-term lettings, including those to farm workers, cottages on estates and residential investment portfolios.

For any tenancy agreement signed on or since June 1, the new regulations will be enforced from July 1. For existing tenancies, so those signed before June 1, they become affected by the new standards from April 1, 2021.

For landlords and tenants who have been in a tenancy for some time, there are several months to get up to speed, but for new tenancies, the need becomes more urgent – and despite everything else that may be going on in the world, ignorance will be no defence.

As of when the rules take effect, it will become a landlord’s duty to find a ‘qualified and competent’ person to inspect the property at least every five years, to ensure all electrical installations in the property they are letting are safe. A report must be written by the person conducting the inspection which sets out the results, and a copy must be given to any existing tenants within 28 days of the inspection.

New tenants must be given a copy of the report before they occupy the premises, and the report must also be shared with prospective tenants within 28 days of them requesting this information. If requested by a local authority, the report must be supplied within seven days.

For tenants, they now have additional assurance the home they rent will be safe, and they will be given written evidence of this. The powers of the local authorities are also clearly stated, and tenants have the protection of them being able to enforce necessary action or repairs if the landlord does not undertake this work.

If remedial work is required, the inspection will set out how urgent this is, and local authorities can intervene to request this is done within 28 days, or in the most serious of cases, carry out work themselves with costs recoverable against the landlord. However, a landlord will not be in breach of their duty if they can show they have taken all reasonable steps to comply with their obligations, such as if they have been unable to gain access to the property or the tenants prevented work taking place.

While many landlords will complete such inspections anyway, it has now become a legal requirement to do so. Failure to comply carries a fine of up to £30,000, so it is important these new regulations are adhered to and that necessary action is taken.

The full requirements of the regulations can be found at gov.uk, but for any uncertainties or clarification, specialist advice must be sought to ensure compliance with the rules.

  • Tom Wills is head of agriculture and estates at Sintons. The specialist team works from its offices in Newcastle and York to support families and businesses across Northumberland, County Durham, North Yorkshire and Cumbria. To speak to Tom about this or any other matter, please contact him on wills@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 3796

Rural succession planning

When passing on your farm to the next generation, you will want to do so in the most tax efficient way as possible. Through careful succession planning, this can be achieved. If you do not plan for the future, your estate could be hit by an unexpected inheritance tax (IHT) liability on your death if your farm and interest is not set up in way that will attract certain inheritance tax reliefs.

A good place to start with succession planning is by you making a will. By making a will, you can help avoid potential disputes that may arise through the rules of intestacy (the rules that apply to your estate if you die without making a will) which dictate who will inherit your estate. Under these rules, if you are survived by, for example, your spouse and children, your spouse will be entitled to receive the first £250,000, your personal possessions and half of whatever is left.  Depending on the value of your estate, this could leave the spouse vulnerable if they do not inherit the whole estate and attract an IHT liability as the assets passing to the children will not be covered under the spousal exemption rules. Furthermore, if some of the children are involved in the family farming business, and others are not, it could lead to disputes within the family especially if some of them need to raise money to buy out their siblings who do not an interest in the future of the farm.

In addition to the above, by making a will, it will give you the opportunity to review the structure of the business and the legal documents behind how the farm is operating.  For example, you may have a partnership deed or shareholder agreement.  You may also need to review any tenancies and grazing licences that have been granted.

Will planning will also allow you to review the IHT position of the farm and whether your interest would qualify for Agricultural Property Relief (APR). APR is a generous relief available to your interest if certain conditions are met.  APR is a relief available on the agricultural value of agricultural property.  If the conditions are met, APR can minimise the amount of IHT payable on death.

In short, APR is available on transfers of land occupied for the purposes of agriculture, together with appropriate buildings and farmhouses used in conjunction with that land. The property in question must have been either occupied by the owner for the purposes of agriculture for two years prior to the transfer or owned by you for seven years and occupied by someone else for the purposes of agriculture throughout that period.

It is often assumed that your farmhouse will automatically qualify for APR if the land is being farmed, but if you are no longer able to farm through ill health or retirement, this can present problems. Also, if you are living in the house, but you have let all of your land out to tenants, claiming the relief on the farmhouse can be problematic. Such a scenario could impact on the level of IHT payable although through careful financial planning this can be mitigated as much as possible.

Any grazing licence arrangement that you have should also be considered to ensure the conditions for occupation are met. Although the land is grazed by someone else, you will want to ensure you are still deemed to be the occupier for the land to qualify for APR. Retaining responsibility for the maintenance and repair of the land is also essential to prove the conditions for occupation are met.

By putting together a succession plan for you and your family, reviewing it regularly in light of any changes to circumstances within your family or business, this can ensure that your farm passes in the way you wish after your death.  Taking advantage of all possible tax reliefs is a must and can save your family many thousands of pounds.  It is essential to obtain specialist legal advice when succession planning. The rural team at Sintons can give you the bespoke advice and support your need to plan for your own situation.

Housebuilder overcomes COVID-19 challenges to remain on track

The North East house builder behind the redevelopment of a Tyneside pub site is pushing on with the launch of the project having successfully overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19 lockdown.

Work on Woodacre Mews, in Wallsend, has continued during the period to ensure work continued to progress to timescale, with developer Woodacre Homes ensuring it at all times complied with social distancing measures for the safety of its employees.

The 12-home development – which is regenerating the site of the derelict Bogie Chain pub – is now launching its show home, and is introducing new ways of touring the property to assist as distancing measures continue to be enforced.

The show home will offer virtual 3D tours, is available on the Woodacre Homes website, and in-person tours can be made by appointment and prospective buyers will be unaccompanied on their viewing.

Woodacre Mews remains on track for completion in September, and interest in the development of four-bedroom townhouses has been high despite the significant drop in movement in the property market.

Steve Frith, director of Woodacre Homes, said: “While much of the economy has come to a halt, the construction sector has continued with many projects, and we have taken great care to ensure work on Woodacre Mews has been done in a safe manner, observing social distancing rules at all times. Our team have done a fantastic job and it’s thanks to their efforts that we remain on track.

“We have continued to receive a strong level of enquiries from potential buyers throughout the lockdown period, which has been very encouraging, so we were keen to show them the show home at the earliest opportunity. By turning to technology and offering unaccompanied visits, we can ensure viewings can be done while ensuring the safety of all concerned. Woodacre Mews has been so long in the planning and is designed and built to the highest of specifications, and we are very excited to showcase what we have created.”

Woodacre Homes has been supported in its site acquisition and development by real estate specialists at law firm Sintons, with partner Tom Wills leading the team.

“The effect of COVID-19 on the property market has been well documented, but it is great to see a regional house builder continuing to show ambition and deliver their project,” said Tom.

“Woodacre Mews is a very welcome development for this area, regenerating the site of a derelict pub and bringing much-needed family housing to the community. The fact interest has been high even while the property market at large has struggled tells its own story and we wish Steve and his team every success in completing the development.”

Permitted development rights for farm building conversion

To many people’s thinking, one of the most successful rural planning policies of recent times has been allowing the conversion of farm buildings to residential use under Permitted Development Rights (PDR). After all, why not utilise redundant traditional farm buildings in order to provide additional rural housing?

Up until 2014, full planning consent was required to convert any farm building to residential use. As these buildings invariably are located outside existing settlements, planning applications were often refused and the buildings continued to decay. In April 2014, the conversion of agricultural buildings was included under Class Q of Permitted Development Rights, but only for three units with a maximum combined floor area of 450m2.

Following a consultation, the PDRs were extended in April 2018 and there is now the opportunity to develop a larger area. It is now possible to create up to three large homes, with a combined floor area of not more than 465m2, or five smaller homes with none being bigger than 100m2, or a combination of both.

Prior approval is required from the Planning Authority before carrying out the development, but this should be much easier to obtain than full planning permission.

What is not to like? Old rural buildings, which are now of little or no use for modern agriculture, being converted to provide rural homes. However, as is the way in life, such a process is not to everybody’s liking. The Local Government Association is now lobbying to have this PDR removed and farm building conversion brought back under full planning control. It argues that this uncontrolled rural development is putting undue strain on infrastructure and service provision. Whether this is the case, or whether it just desires local authorities to exercise full control again, I will leave you to decide.

What this does suggest is that the opportunity to develop old farm buildings without the need to seek full planning permission will not last forever, so make the most of it while you can.

Should you do so, you should also consider how to make the most of the opportunity. The current ownership structure may not be the most tax efficient. If the buildings are owned by the business, should they be moved out prior to the PDR being exercised? Does it provide the opportunity for the next generation to have a home on the holding? Can it be in joint ownership to make the most of Capital Gains Tax exemptions?

As is so often the case, a little bit of input from your professional advisors prior to going ahead could be money well spent indeed.

If you have any matters that you would like to discuss then please do not hesitate to speak to Tom Wills or his specialist team of rural advisors.  His contact details are tom.wills@sintons.co.uk and 0191 226 3796.

Difficult times for our rural communities

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought huge economic challenges for the whole country to overcome, but nowhere is its impact more keenly felt than in those communities which rely on farming and agriculture, as well as rural tourism.

The unprecedented situation of people being told to stay at home has had a huge knock-on effect. Farmers whose supply of fresh produce is traditionally eagerly taken by retailers has this year largely gone to waste. The lack of demand caused by people stockpiling long-life food and not venturing out to buy fresh as they usually do has seen major repercussions, with many farms seeing vast drops in income.

Those businesses which rely on tourism have usually by now enjoyed a successful Easter, with families travelling from across the country to enjoy the beautiful rural surroundings we are so lucky to have here. This year, the ban on all but essential travel has seen these tourism hotspots deserted, and the businesses within them often forced to close due to lack of demand.

Holiday lets are traditionally seeing a peak booking period around this time of year, with seasonal workers being recruited heavily in preparation for a busy summer, but for 2020, we simply do not know what lies ahead. At the time of writing, we have no idea whether lockdown will be lifted to the extent that tourism will be possible this year.

Many businesses which employ staff have placed some on furlough leave, through the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, which seeks to protect the roles of employees in the hope they can return to work once the pandemic has passed. While this is of course a welcome boost, for many businesses, particularly those which are wholly reliant on their seasonal income, the future sadly remains very uncertain.

We are acutely aware of these varied challenges faced by our rural communities at the minute, and we have specialists across the firm at Sintons who can help.

Our specialist team at Sintons is one of the most experienced and capable in the region and has supported families and businesses through many challenges during our 124 year history. We are absolutely committed to helping our communities get through the COVID-19 pandemic in every way we can.

We are known across the North of England for the quality of advice we give and the relationships we seek to build. Many of our clients have been with us for many years, and routinely we advise multiple generations of families who have come to know and trust us deeply.

For businesses which are struggling to see a future, we can advise on options. For those ventures looking to plot a way back for their staff from furlough leave, we can support you. For families and individuals who want to make provision for the future of their loved ones, having been inspired to do so by the devastating impact of COVID-19 on so many others, we are here to help you do so.

For over a century, Sintons has been the trusted advisor so many families have turned to, to support them through both good and bad times, and we are proud to again be the people our clients turn to. We would urge anyone who needs any advice to get in touch – we are here for you.

Ask the Experts weekly Q&A from Sintons’ Employment Team – episode 4

Ask the Experts weekly Q&A from Sintons’ Employment Team – episode 4 – with Keith Land and Ailsa Hobson.

These sessions have come about due to the employment team here at Sintons having been inundated with COVID-19 and furlough questions following the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the ever changing government guidance.

The team has also been giving some thought as to what work may look like following the relaxation of the current restrictions.

So, In order to give you an opportunity to share in some of that wisdom, the team have opened themselves up to these Q&A sessions which are going to last until the end of May. During these short, bite sized sessions, members of the employment team will answer three questions, although it will actually be four today, (either COVID-19 related or not) that you haven’t either quite got to the bottom of or that your employees persistently ask you.

Please click on the image below to watch the session.

Sintons’ Employment Seminar – Managing the End of Furlough

Sintons’ Employment team, in partnership with Reed HR, have recorded the following complimentary online employment law seminar.

This seminar focuses on how to manage the end of furlough & potential restructuring.

Please click on the play button in the bottom left corner of the below image to start viewing.

To follow the full size slides the team are using throughout the presentation, please click here prior to commencing watching.

 

Ask the Experts weekly Q&A with Sintons’ Employment Team – episode 2

Ask the Experts weekly Q&A from Sintons’ Employment Team – episode 2 – with Keith Land and Angela Carver

These sessions have come about due to the employment team here at Sintons having been inundated with COVID-19 and furlough questions following the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the ever changing government guidance.

The team has also been giving some thought as to what work may look like following the relaxation of the current restrictions.

So, In order to give you an opportunity to share in some of that wisdom, the team have opened themselves up to these Q&A sessions which are going to last until the end of May. During these short, bite sized sessions, members of the employment team will answer three questions, although it will actually be four today, (either COVID-19 related or not) that you haven’t either quite got to the bottom of or that your employees persistently ask you.

Please click the image below to listen.

Ask the Experts weekly Q&A with Sintons’ Employment Team – episode 1

Ask the Experts weekly Q&A from Sintons’ Employment Team – episode 1  – with Keith Land and Ailsa Hobson.

These sessions have come about due to the employment team here at Sintons having been inundated with COVID-19 and furlough questions following the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the ever changing government guidance.

The team has also been giving some thought as to what work may look like following the relaxation of the current restrictions.

So, In order to give you an opportunity to share in some of that wisdom, the team have opened themselves up to these Q&A sessions which are going to last until the end of May. During these short, bite sized sessions, members of the employment team will answer three questions, although it will actually be four today, (either COVID-19 related or not) that you haven’t either quite got to the bottom of or that your employees persistently ask you.

Please click the image below to listen.

COVID-19 Q&A | Sintons | Corporate

During these unprecedented times, where the situation is changing on a daily basis, we are aware that individuals and business owners will have many questions and uncertainties about how these developments impact on them.

Here, through a series of Q&A with expert lawyers from across our firm, Sintons hopes to be able to answer some of those pressing questions, and provide some certainty and clarity for people who are unsure how to proceed.

We will bring you a question and answer per day for the next few weeks.

Q – I am looking into buying a business I know is struggling – would you suggest now is a good time to make such a purchase? Can I still access funding, will my bank lend?

A – Buying a struggling business referred to as ‘distressed’ or ‘accelerated sales opportunities’ can have its advantages and be for the commercial benefit of a similar or competitive business. It is, however, vital that any potential buyer takes legal advice to avoid risks and protect their position as much as possible.

One of the advantages of purchasing a distressed business it that the purchase price is usually discounted to reflect the risks being assumed by a buyer and this can be attractive to potential buyers who are prepared to take a punt. The reason for the reduced price is that any prospective buyer will be expected to take on any commercial risk associated with the business and assets. The principal ‘caveat emptor’, meaning ‘buyer beware’, applies, as any potential buyer will be buying the assets ‘as seen’, subject to any defects (including defects in title, physical condition or claims by third parties).

Another advantage is the time scales (and therefore the associated costs) in purchasing a distressed business. Because of the lack of available cash to fund the trading of a business (and the risk for an administrator in trading a business whilst insolvent) the sale process is usually accelerated and takes between 5-10 days from an offer being accepted to completion, compared to solvent acquisitions which can take months. Time is of the essence and therefore any potential buyer needs to take a commercial view on the transaction and rely on pragmatic due diligence which focuses on the key issues at a very high level. Such a high level review will reduce the professional fees associated with an acquisition.

A combination of sound commercial judgement and legal knowledge is needed to understand the opportunities and risks for the buyer. The key risks are:

  1. Commercial risk – as noted above the risk is always with the buyer in an insolvent acquisition
  2. Ongoing contracts – sellers will want buyers to assume responsibility for performing ongoing contracts, even if loss making. Poorly/unreasonably drafted arrangements may fix the buyer with responsibility for historic product/service warranties.
  3. No warranties or title covenants will be given in relation to the business and/or assets. This approach is in complete contrast to a purchase from a solvent seller where the buyer can expect the seller to warrant that it owns the assets, they are in good order and that there are no unexpected liabilities and where a buyer can bring an action against the seller if the warranties are untrue
  4. Employees – the Transfer or Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 could apply which could mean employees transfer to the buyer, which means the seller’s obligations and liabilities associated with these employees will transfer and become the legal responsibility  of the buyer
  5. Retention of title clauses over the stock – many suppliers incorporate retention of title clauses into their terms and conditions of supply. The effect of this is that a buyer may pay good money to a distressed seller to purchase the stock only to find that the seller has no rights in it, as the supplier has not been paid and they have a retention over the stock.

We are being told that the banks are still open for business but would anticipate that it will take longer than usual to access funding which may present difficulties if you need an accelerated completion.

* For any advice on this matter or any other acquisition or insolvency purchase matters, please contact Matt Collen or Emma Pern in the corporate team at Sintons on matt.collen@sintons.co.uk or emma.pern@sintons.co.uk. For assistance or advice with any banking or finance matters, please contact Jane Meikle, head of banking at Sintons, on jane.meikle@sintons.co.uk

Capital gains tax on the sale of UK residential properties – a COVID-19 update

On 6th April a new deadline for paying capital gains tax following the disposal of a UK residential property which did not qualify for main residence relief came into force.  The new regime gave individuals and Trustees 30 days from the date of completion to pay the tax due and lodge the new on-line return form.  If no tax is due there is no need for a report to be made.

In the light of the current COVID-19 situation HMRC have confirmed that they are allowing a period of time to adjust to the new regime and they will not issue late filing penalties for CGT payments on account where returns are received late up to and including 31st July 2020.

For UK residents this means that transactions completed between 6th April and 30th June 2020 and reported up to 31st July 2020 will not be subject to late filing penalties but transactions completed after 1st July 2020 will receive a late filing penalty if they are not reported within the 30 day period.  In all cases the guidance makes it clear that interest will accrue on the outstanding tax if it is still unpaid after 30 days.

HMRC have indicated that they will be flexible where payment is difficult due to the COVID-19 crises but this is unlikely to help sellers where they have received proceeds on the sale of the property and where they would be expected to pay the tax from the sale proceeds.  HMRC have indicated that they understand that there will be situations when payment is difficult, for example, where the disposal of the property was by way of gift and where there are no actual sale proceeds being received or if the seller is disposing of the property to find money to invest in a business in response to the COVID-19 crises.

Owing to the fact that the new regime is an on-line payment regime you will need to register with HMRC first and sufficient time should be allowed to enable this to be completed and the information returned before the deadline.  For trustees disposing of UK residential property they can also use the new on-line system but personal representatives disposing of a deceased’s property will need to file a paper return.

* For advice on this or any other related matter, please contact Alan Dawson, Chairman at Sintons, on alan.dawson@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 7811.

COVID-19 Q&A | Sintons | Employment Law

During these unprecedented times, where the situation is changing on a daily basis, we are aware that individuals and business owners will have many questions and uncertainties about how these developments impact on them.

Here, through a series of Q&A with expert lawyers from across our firm, Sintons hopes to be able to answer some of those pressing questions, and provide some certainty and clarity for people who are unsure how to proceed.

We will bring you a question and answer per day for the next few weeks.

Q – I have put some of my employees on furlough leave but still cannot see a way through the days and weeks ahead. What other options do I have available at this time? I am keen to protect as many jobs as possible but the financials just aren’t working.

A – Making use of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme is a good first step as this is a scheme open to all employers. However, if further steps are required to help your organisation adapt to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic there are other options to consider:

  • Lay off and short-time working

If you have a contractual right to do so, you can lay off some employees or place them on short-time working. Broadly, laying off employees means that you provide them with no work (and no pay, other than a minimal statutory payment) for a period while retaining them as employees. Short-time working means providing employees with less work (and less pay) for a period while retaining them as employees. Unlike dismissal, it is a temporary solution to the problem of less work. If employees are laid off or placed on short-time working (or subject to a mixture of the two) for four or more consecutive weeks, or a total of six weeks in any period of 13 weeks, they can apply for a statutory redundancy payment (subject to the normal eligibility criteria).

  • Reducing headcount and temporary stoppages

If you have not already taken such steps, measures which might help delay redundancies include restricting recruitment, withdrawing job offers, deferring new joiners and reducing non-permanent staff. You could also consider adopting temporary stoppage arrangements, such as, sabbaticals, unpaid leave or requiring employees to use up parts of their contractual or statutory holiday entitlement.

  • Varying terms and conditions

You may seek to vary contractual terms, for example reducing hours or pay. If so, you should first check employees’ contractual terms to see if these allow for any flexibility. If express terms do not permit variation, you should seek consent. Express agreement is the simplest way of changing terms and conditions. If employees refuse to accept a change, then the next step would be to terminate and re-engage on the new terms. For employees who have two or more years’ service this will amount to a dismissal for the purposes of unfair dismissal and therefore the normal rules in relation to a potentially fair reason and fair procedure will apply. If it impacts 20 or more employees, the mass redundancy legislation will apply and you should first seek advice.

  • Redundancy

If redundancies are necessary then you must be satisfied that the statutory definition of redundancy is met. You will then need to ensure you follow a fair procedure which will involve consultation with individual employees where employees have two or more years’ continuous service. If selecting from a pool of employees, you will also need to ensure selection is fair and involves the fair application of objective selection criteria.

If you are proposing to make large scale redundancies of 20+ employees within a period of 90 days or less, certain statutory rules in relation to collective consultation will apply. In brief this will include the requirement to consult with representatives of the affected employees for 30 or 45 days (minimum) and to notify the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

On a final note, there is other support available for employers struggling with the economic consequences of COVID-19 which include, among other things, 12 month business rates holidays for businesses in certain sectors, and a business interruption loan scheme. You should keep up to date with developments and whether they apply to you via the www.gov.uk website.

COVID-19 Q&A | Sintons | Commercial Real Estate

During these unprecedented times, where the situation is changing on a daily basis, we are aware that individuals and business owners will have many questions and uncertainties about how these developments impact on them.

Here, through a series of Q&A with expert lawyers from across our firm, Sintons hopes to be able to answer some of those pressing questions, and provide some certainty and clarity for people who are unsure how to proceed.

We will bring you a question and answer per day for the next few weeks.

Q – I entered into a commercial lease prior to Coronavirus but now I am struggling to keep up with its terms. What can I do?

A – The Government has introduced, as part of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (“the Act”), a suspension of the forfeiture provisions in commercial leases, to assist tenants during the economic uncertainty of the pandemic. So what does that, in practical terms, mean? 

Forfeiture is a standard clause in commercial leases which enables landlords to bring leases to an end when tenants haven’t paid rent, have breached obligations in the lease and also, usually, as a result of insolvency.  The detail behind the Act provides that if a rent payment is missed, forfeiture action is suspended until 30 June 2020 (that includes any forfeiture proceedings that are currently underway via the courts) but that date may be extended by the Government, if required. Once the period has expired the suspension will fall away and a tenant may then be at risk of being forced out of its premises if a rent payment is missed. Forfeiture for breach of the tenant’s covenants in the lease and insolvency are not affected by the Act – it is only for rent.

The intention behind the legislation is to give tenants a window of time to try and make some sense of the way forward, without the additional pressure that its landlord may take the premises from under its feet. However the Act only suspends the forfeiture power, it doesn’t side step the obligation to pay the rent  – that will still remain.

The steps being taken the Government’s steps are important but the indication is that many landlords are taking a pragmatic approach, speaking to tenants and offering rent free periods or other concessions. Landlords are very much aware that vacant accommodation may not bode well, in the post lock down economic climate. As well as, potentially, struggling to find new tenants on the same terms having to bear the cost of business rates, insurance  and security costs is something many landlords would rather avoid. Having to take reduced rental income and working with tenants may transpire to be, commercially, the more beneficial option than ending up with voids for, potentially, many months to come.  

If changes to the occupational arrangement are agreed they could be evidenced by way of a side letter, which would be a personal arrangement between the parties and the lease itself would remain unchanged.  One point to check is vat, particularly if a vat invoice for the higher rent has already been issued. The simple solution may be to issue a credit note to cancel any vat liability, keeping accounting records in order. The alternative, if the concession is to last in the long term, is to formally vary the lease. However, due to legal technicalities, care needs to be taken as, from a tenant’s perspective, that could result in additional expenditure in the form of stamp duty liability.

So, overall, the Act is welcome to provide a degree of breathing space to tenants who are unable or struggling to pay rent in these uncertain times and the market, going forward, needs to be carefully monitored for both landlords and tenants. Communication between the parties and maintaining an open dialogue seems to be key to try, from both sides perspective, to come out of this crisis as unscathed as possible.

For further advice on this or any other commercial real estate related matter, please contact Louise Kelly, on louise.kelly@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 7807.

COVID-19 Q&A | Sintons | Banking & Finance

During these unprecedented times, where the situation is changing on a daily basis, we are aware that individuals and business owners will have many questions and uncertainties about how these developments impact on them.

Here, through a series of Q&A with expert lawyers from across our firm, Sintons hopes to be able to answer some of those pressing questions, and provide some certainty and clarity for people who are unsure how to proceed.

We will bring you a question and answer per day for the next few weeks.

Q – My business has a loan from a bank with regular repayments being made. I am worried that in the current economic circumstances, the business won’t be able to make the repayments. What should I do?

A – Find a copy of your loan agreement and review the document. If you don’t have a copy, ask your bank for one or, if a solicitor acted on your behalf, ask them for a copy of the signed document.

Speak to your banker and explain the problems the business is currently facing so that they can work with you to discuss the options available.

Loan agreements contain many different terms and it will probably not just be the repayment obligations that need to be reviewed. Other clauses which the business may have problems complying with are:

Financial Covenants – these are financial calculations which are calculated on a regular basis (monthly/quarterly depending on the terms of your loan agreement). If cash flow in the business has dramatically reduced and you have a financial covenant that monitors cash flow you will need to speak to your bank about an immediate or future covenant breach.

Loan to Value – the value of any property you own which has been provided to the bank as security against the amount of your debt. This is an ongoing covenant and one which in the current climate is likely to be breached with property values falling.

Undertakings – statements that are repeated on set dates in accordance with the loan agreement. These statements, subject to the exact wording, have to be “true and correct” when made and repeated. It may be that some of the statement are no longer true and correct in the current climate.

Material Adverse Effect or Material Adverse Change (MAC) – MAC provisions typically allow for a lender to call an event of default in situations where the borrower’s position is substantially deteriorated from the date that they entered into the loan agreement. The provisions tend to be heavily negotiated so it is important you understand the MAC clause applicable to your business. From our discussions with all the major banks the clear feeling is, for these lenders, not to rely on MAC clauses but work together with their customers however all borrowers should be mindful of these clauses if the time comes when your lender can no longer continue to support the business.

Cessation of Trading – the majority of loan agreements contain an event of default if the borrower ceases or threatens to cease trading. If you have had to do so as a result of the Governments instructions you will need to discuss this with the bank.

Abandonment – if your loan is to finance a development it is likely to contain a clause whereby an event of default occurs if the development is abandoned for more than a set period of days. The earlier you discuss matters with your lender generally speaking the more favourable they will be to working with you and the business.

Tenant Breaches – if your loan agreement is dependent upon rent from tenants you will need to look carefully at the covenants regarding the income from these tenants not just in terms of financial covenants but also if the loan agreement contains any clauses regarding key tenants and their own financial status, occupancy levels, tenant breaches.

The above are just some of the clauses that are most likely to be relevant and ones which you will need to discuss with your bank. We can help you to identify the relevant clauses, discuss the same with your bank and propose amendments or temporary waivers to ensure your business remains viable and functioning during the pandemic and thereafter.

Job retention scheme – can it apply to you?

In these desperate times, our Government has had the unique challenge of trying to defeat a deadly virus, whilst trying to avoid destroying our economy in the process. It quickly identified that retaining existing jobs was a key component in keeping the economy in a condition which may allow it to recover in due course. Hence, the Job Retention Scheme was one of the first initiatives announced.

Under this scheme, the Government will refund employers with 80% of the salaries, up to £2500 per month, of workers “furloughed” from 1st March to 31st May, or part thereof. The minimum length of time that can be claimed is 3 weeks. The scheme may, in due course, be extended beyond May. “Furlough” is a new word for many of us and it means a temporary leave of absence, in this case due to the impacts of COVID 19. The scheme also covers the associated Employer National Insurance contributions and minimum automatic enrolment employer pension contributions on that wage.

In order to claim, an employer must register on the online portal. This is not ready yet and is not expected to be operational until at least the end of April. There is no indication of when employers will receive the salary refund once the portal is operational.

This is one of the many uncertain aspects of the scheme. That such uncertainties exist is hardly surprising given the difficulty of designing and implementing such an enormous grant scheme in a matter of days.

An area of immediate concern to the rural economy is how it applies to seasonal workers. With Easter fast approaching, now is the time that many rural attractions would normally be opening their doors and others would be ramping up for the busy months ahead.

In order to be eligible, employees must have been on the PAYE payroll on 28th February 2020. They can be full time or part time, on agency contracts or zero hours contracts. Many workers in the rural economy will receive variable amounts of pay depending on hours worked. In this case, the employer can either base the claim on a monthly average over the last 12 months, or the equivalent months of 2019.

Employers can pay the affected staff the 80% of salary which will be refunded, or the full salary. The employer will be responsible for the NI and pension contributions on the element paid that is not covered by the scheme. Once furloughed, the employee is effectively laid-off and cannot undertake any work for the employer. All these arrangements should be agreed with employees with regard to existing employment legislation and confirmed in writing.

The scheme may not be 100% perfect or 100% clear, but it is an essential lifeline and should help many small rural businesses through this very difficult period.

* Tom Wills is head of agriculture and estates at Sintons. Throughout the firm, we remain fully contactable and open for business despite the challenges presented by the developing COVID-19 outbreak. Our technology infrastructure and business continuity planning enables our team to work remotely if and when necessary, and we are also making wide use of Skype meetings as a result of the Government’s social distancing advice. To speak to Tom or any other member of our team, please contact tom.wills@sintons.co.uk or 0191 226 3796.

Prestigious accreditation adds further endorsement of specialist rural team

The head of Sintons’ specialist rural team has been confirmed as a leader in his field through being one of a handful of lawyers in the North of England to hold a prestigious accreditation.

Tom Wills is a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association (ALA), a body which promotes the understanding and development of the role of law in agriculture and environment-related issues, and provides a forum for specialist advisors in this sector to support each other in their work.

Tom, head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, has held Fellowship of the ALA for a number of years, confirming his position as one of the leading specialist advisors to rural families and businesses in the North of England.

His team has grown strongly in the recent past, with a series of instructions in major transactions, including the recent donation of Carrawburgh Roman Fort to the nation, in which Sintons acted for the landowner, Jennifer du Cane, in the nationally-significant matter.

The team works throughout the North of England, building on the core client base of families and business who have been with Sintons for many years and often through several generations, and to whom the law firm is the trusted advisor.

Tom said: “Our rural team works with families and rurally-based businesses across Northumberland, the North East, North Yorkshire and Cumbria and we are proud of the reputation we have built as trusted expert advisors in this very specialist area. Our team is growing quickly on the back of the increasing volumes of new instructions we receive, and our capability has seen us involved in a number of highly significant transactions in the recent past.

“I am delighted to be a Fellow of the ALA, which is an endorsement held by very few lawyers, and confirms specialism and capability in this area of work. Clients who come to us can be assured they are being advised by true specialists in their field, with genuine expertise and understanding of rural and agricultural matters.”

Carrawburgh Roman Fort gifted to the nation

A Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall has become part of the National Heritage Collection following a generous gift by a Northumberland landowner.

Now in the care of English Heritage, the Roman fort’s future is secure and its stories will soon be shared with visitors to the wall.

Carrawburgh Roman Fort is one of 16 forts along the 73-mile long Hadrian’s Wall, and is now in the care of English Heritage after being donated by Jennifer du Cane.

As the last fort to be built on Hadrian’s Wall, forming an additional stronghold between Chesters and Housesteads, Carrawburgh housed a garrison of approximately 500 soldiers – first from South West France, later from Southern Belgium – responsible for defending the frontier of the Roman Empire from the tribes to the north. Nearby stands the Roman temple to the god Mithras, built by the soldiers based at Carrawburgh.

The fort’s surviving structures – including the remains of its walls – lie below the turf cover. In comparison with other sites on Hadrian’s Wall, the fort has undergone very little archaeological investigation and so many of its stories remain untold.

Carrawburgh had been owned by Jennifer Du Cane’s family since 1950 but she has now decided to donate the site to the nation. She has been supported by the specialist rural and agricultural team at law firm Sintons, who acted on her behalf

She said: “It has been a great privilege, but also a serious responsibility, to own Carrawburgh Roman Fort. The time has come to pass on this amazing site as a gift to the nation.

“My thanks go to Sintons for enabling this to happen.”

Legal ownership of Carrawburgh has now transferred to Historic England, the Government’s heritage advisor, and it will be cared for by English Heritage as part of the National Heritage Collection – a collection of historic sites, ranging in date from Stonehenge to a Cold War bunker outside York, that together tell the story of England. The fort is the first acquisition for the National Heritage Collection since English Heritage became a charity in 2015.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive at Historic England, said: “We are enormously grateful for this generous gift. Hadrian’s Wall is one of England’s most important historic sites and Carrawburgh makes a really valuable addition to our National Collection of historic properties. The fort represents a key part of the Roman frontier and is of outstanding archaeological significance. It has the potential to contribute significantly to our knowledge of the Roman Empire and to visitor enjoyment of the Wall.”

Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s Chief Executive, said: “This is a great start to the New Year, not only for English Heritage but for the nation who will get to enjoy this wonderfully evocative site on what was once the edge of the Roman Empire. We would like to thank Jennifer Du Cane for her generosity and look forward very much to welcoming the public to Carrawburgh.”

Tom Wills, a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association, advised Jennifer Du Cane, supported by a team including rural specialist Saffron Sinclair and private client senior associate Paul Collingwood.

“Carrawburgh Roman Fort is part of our regional and national history and is visited by thousands of visitors from around the world every year. Jennifer has taken a most benevolent step in gifting this site to the nation, enabling it to be preserved and enjoyed for the years ahead,” he said.

“As specialist advisors to landowners, with years of experience in the most complex of matters, we are delighted to be able to secure this transfer of ownership of such a historically-significant site for our client.”

Farewell, adieu, auf wiedersehen 2019

With 2019 drawing to a close, it is time for my traditional look back on the year, along with a look forward to what might come our way in 2020. I am writing following the General Election result, so writing with a sense of relief that the country can now end political gridlock even if Brexit may bring further uncertainty as the trade talks are played out. The alternative could have brought in fiscal, legal and land use changes which could have totally altered the rural economy and landscape.

It might be a distant memory, but 2019 began where 2018 left off – a very dry winter then followed by a very dry spring, resulting in large wildfires across the UK but fortunately none in the North East. This prompted me to write an article covering the law around drainage management in the expectation of flooding. The thinking was right, but the timing was a little out. Mother Nature did not take her revenge until the summer and autumn.

Harvest was a soggy affair and autumn fieldwork was disrupted by almost continuous downpours. Although there are some fields in the region that were not sown with winter crops, the situation is much worse elsewhere with huge areas of arable land under water for weeks on end. What this will mean for harvest and prices next year is, as yet, unknown.

At least the damper weather provided plentiful grass and heavy crops of silage, with some good hay crops as well. Despite a heavy crop, lamb prices held up reasonably well. Down on last year but in line with the longer term price trend and enjoying a nice boost just now. The same cannot be said about the abysmal beef prices.

Is the poor beef trade due to the red-meat bashing antics of the environmental lobby or due to some market skulduggery? It is not clear. What is clear is that our grass-based beef and sheep systems are being unfairly bracketed with more intensive systems with questionable environmental credentials that seem to be utilised elsewhere in the world. This is something that really needs to be addressed by the representational bodies in 2020.

On the political front, it is probably a case of the less said the better about what went on in 2019, although now, at last, we do seem to have clarity and a vision of the road ahead. The Agriculture Act, which appeared in 2018, proceeded no further but will no doubt soon be re-introduced. So 2020 will no doubt be hectic as farming’s future passes through Parliament and the crucial trade talks get properly underway.

I do hope that your BPS drops into your account this December, that peace and goodwill appear somewhere soon and that Christmas Carroll bags a hat trick. I wish you all a merry Christmas and all the very best for 2020, whatever it may bring.

Rights of Way

One of the most aggravating things that can happen to a landowner is, out of the blue, a third party claiming a right of way across their land. This could be a private right of way or a public right of way. Such rights can arise if the access has been used for an uninterrupted period of at least 20 years. In order for a right to be claimed, the access must have been used without the owner’s permission, using secrecy or force.

Most private rights will be limited to an individual, or householders, and their registration will usually simply be formalising, via the Land Registry, an arrangement that has existed for many years. This could arise in situations where a householder has habitually crossed a field to reach the garden or car parking area. If there is no written agreement and joint use of vehicular access, then it is likely that there will be nothing documenting the responsibilities and contributions covering future maintenance of the access.

Public rights can be a bit more problematic. All existing public rights of way are meant to be shown on the ‘Definitive Map’, which is held by the local authority. As things stand, under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 2000, the Definitive Map will be “finalised” on 1st January 2026. No more pre-1949 rights will be able to be registered after that date. Therefore, it is likely that the claiming of such rights may increase over the next few years. However, it is possible that this situation could change should the political wind change.

Landowners can protect their land from new claims for rights of way by submitting a statement under Section 31 (6) of the Highways Act 1980 (for public rights of way) to the local authority that has responsibility for highways. A detailed map showing existing rights of way forms the main part of the submission, along with a statement that the landowner does not wish any, or any additional, public access. This is then put out for public consultation and, if there are no objections, then accepted by the local authority. This declaration will be valid for 20 years.

However, the best form of defence is ongoing vigilance. This is particularly true with land near centres of population. In such cases, it is particularly important as new public rights could severely impact or nullify development value.

If access is taking place, signs can be erected denying access, or access can be physically blocked by locking gates, additional fencing etc. If signs are deployed, they may need to be replaced on a regular basis.

Access rights can be prevented by the landowner granting permissive access and having this properly recorded and signed. However, do be aware that removing such permissive access can be problematic as people may get used to using it and it may be featured in guide books and pamphlets which can exist even after the permission has been withdrawn.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Sintons praised for real estate expertise and strong client base

Sintons’ specialist real estate team has won praise from Chambers 2020 for its legal expertise, wide-ranging specialism and “impressive” client base.

The firm was hailed for its ability to act in a host of sectors, with particular “expertise” in the healthcare property market, and strong capability in sectors including retail, leisure and waste-to-energy.

The real estate team, one of the biggest and fastest-growing of its kind in the North East, is said to have a first-rate client roster comprising major organisations, residential developers and banks, among many others.

Its work in agricultural property matters on behalf of farmers, landowners and rural businesses was highlighted, with Tom Wills being named as a key name in this area.

Mark Dobbin, head of real estate, was praised for being “very thorough and precise” and for his broad range of expertise in handling a wide range of matters related to commercial and residential property, including large-scale development projects, complex leasing arrangements and real estate finance.

Partner Paul Liddle is also hailed as a notable name in real estate, with huge levels of experience and a particular presence in industrial and energy-related property development. One client said: “He is very experienced and diligent, and he very much has our best interests at heart.”

Chambers’ praise of Sintons’ real estate offering echoes the rankings from Legal 500 2019, which also highlighted the firm’s regular presence in major transactions and ability to act in a broad range of specialist sectors.

Mark Quigley, managing partner of Sintons, said: “Our real estate has a rightful reputation as one of the leading advisors in this area in the North of England, and to again have this independently confirmed by Chambers is a huge endorsement of what we do here. We are growing strongly and winning new work on a national basis, and we are delighted our efforts are being acknowledged.

“The findings of Chambers echo those of Legal 500 in highlighting the legal capability we have and our breadth of expertise, which truly make us stand out from the crowd. Real estate is a key area for Sintons and our ongoing growth as a firm, and the increasing levels of instructions, underpinned by the addition of new legal excellence to the team, stands us in very good stead for the future.”

Rural team praised for legal and client service excellence

The specialist agriculture and estates team at Sintons has been hailed for its quality of legal excellence and client service by Legal 500 2019.

The growing team works with a range of clients across the North of England, with specialisms including the acquisition and disposal of large farming ventures, agricultural holdings and work in mines and minerals, as well as advising offshore trusts holding UK farms.

Legal 500 praised its “range of expertise” and the fact that client “expectations are usually exceeded”.

Tom Wills, a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association and head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, is hailed as “extremely competent and confident” and for being “able to do what is required with minimal fuss”, with a strong track record of acting in complex matters.

Partner Paul Liddle, a long-established name in this area, is also singled out for his experience and expertise in acting for developers and landowners in the energy, waste and renewables sector.

Mark Quigley, managing partner of Sintons, said: “Sintons have, for many years and often several generations, been the trusted advisor to rural families and businesses and this is something we are extremely proud of. To win recognition from Legal 500 2019 for our client service, alongside our levels of expertise, is enormously pleasing and is rightful recognition of what Tom and his team are delivering. Our agriculture and estates team is growing strongly and is regularly involved in sizeable and highly complex transactions throughout the North of England, and we are delighted with this latest independent recognition of our capabilities.”

Crash, Bang, Wallop: The shooting season is here again.

For the fortunate, the shooting season is already underway with the grouse season now upon us. Those interested will have to wait a little longer before the partridge shooting really gets going and the prospect of happy days to come on the pheasants.

What will this season bring? I would guess that sometime, somewhere, it will bring a repeat of incidents that we have seen in previous seasons: over turned beaters’ trailers, rolled quads, blown barrels, vehicular crashes of varying severity, broken limbs and cardiac arrest.

Are you ready? Have you revisited your Health & Safety Policy and Risk Assessment for the 2019/20 season? It is a legal requirement that all operations that employ five or more people, this includes part time employees such as beaters, have a written H&S Policy and Risk Assessment in place. However, all employers are legally obliged to carry out an assessment.

I would strongly recommend that all shoots go through the process and keep the documents up to date even where nobody is employed. If anything should go wrong, sight of the documents will be one of the first requests from the Health & Safety Executive. It is not a good start to the investigation if those documents do not exist. Any necessary agreements with the landowner should also be in place and documented.

Vehicles and trailers should be insured, maintained and fit for purpose. The Health and Safety Executive has produced a very useful information sheet covering the transportation of people in farm trailers (AIS no36). A recent court case highlighted the need to use seat belts, where they are fitted, when using ATV type vehicles.

One particular area to consider is communications. It is likely that all key personnel will have mobile phones, but do they actually work across the shoot terrain? They can be worse than useless, so other systems should be considered. Can the Emergency Services locate the site and where could a helicopter land? If all eventualities have been considered, risks can be minimised and incidents can be managed efficiently.

Putting the documents together in the first instance does seem like a chore, but there are plenty of templates available to help you. You will probably find that much of the process is similar to what you actually do when planning a shoot day. The difference being that the process is formally recorded and signed off by the key personnel. Once in place, it is a simple task to review and update on an annual basis.

Tom Wills is an Agricultural and Land lawyer at law firm Sintons. Anyone who would like to discuss legal or rural matters can contact him at tom.wills@sintons.co.uk or on 0191 226 3796.

Are you aware of the General Licence requirements?

You would have needed to have been abroad at the end of April, or in the middle of London, not to have been aware of the furore surrounding Natural England’s decision to rescind the General Licences, which were in place to allow the legal control of certain pest species.

Natural England took the decision without consulting rural bodies and to make matters worse, it took the decision in the middle of the lambing and nesting seasons. I can’t recall witnessing greater anger or incredulity across the countryside.

The licences were issued under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and were reviewed on an annual basis so were hardly a new concept. Following the rescinding, Natural England began issuing a series of confusing and impractical licences, along with an Individual Licence. Fortunately, Defra responded to the complaints of the countryside and took control of the process. On June 14th, it issued three new General Licences.

These licences allow individuals to kill or take wild birds to conserve wild birds and to conserve flora and fauna (GL34); to preserve public health or public safety (GL35); to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters (GL36). It is GL34 and GL36 which will cover most pest control activities in the countryside.

Given the media, and social media, coverage surrounding this issue, I would recommend that anybody planning to operate under these licences familiarises themselves with the contents beforehand. A slip of the tongue could create a wildlife crime! For example, Carrion Crows, Magpies, Jays and Rooks can be controlled under GL34 and GL36, so which licence are you utilising?

It is worth noting that the licences do require an individual to attempt non-lethal control before and during the control process being exercised under licence. The exact wording is: “before using this licence, reasonable endeavours must have been made to achieve the purpose in question using lawful methods not covered by this licence (unless their use would be impractical, without effect or disproportionate in the circumstances); and when using this licence, reasonable endeavours must continue to be made to achieve the purpose in question using lawful methods not covered by this licence (unless their use would be impractical, without effect or disproportionate in the circumstances).”

The licences do not apply to control on land covered by EU conservation designations, or within 300m of such land. Much of the text of the licences refers to the use of cage traps and the welfare of any decoy birds. The licences are only valid until February 29, 2020. A further review will be carried out in the interim.

For now, the situation is much as it has been since 1981, although the higher profile requires greater knowledge from licence users. So please do brush up on the rules.

Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, is an agricultural and rural law specialist at the law firm, which offers a full set of legal services. Please do contact him about this or any other legal matter on 0191 226 3796 or tom.wills@sintons.co.uk.

Beware the new septic tank regulations

New rules around septic tanks many mean that some property owners are facing a complex and expensive problem in order to comply with the law, a leading lawyer has warned.

Rural properties that are not served by mains sewage systems normally rely on septic tanks for processing their sewage. New rules concerning the use of septic tanks, known as the General Binding Rules, will come into force on January 1, 2020, having been initially introduced in 2015 with an extended period of grace.

However, from next year, owners must ensure they are compliant and their septic tanks meet the appropriate standards and are properly installed and maintained.

Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates at law firm Sintons, warns that enforcement may mean overcoming complex issues for some rural property owners, so it is vital it is addressed now.

“One of the main problem areas is the rule that stipulates no septic tank can discharge into a water course. I have come across clearly non-compliant septic tanks serving old mills that have been developed and small villages that once were estate villages. The properties are now in multiple ownerships, the ownership of the septic tank is often vague and it can be situated on third party land,” he said.

“If the tank is situated close to a water course, it is likely that the only possible solution is an expensive small sewage treatment plant. However, the initial work is calculating who pays for what, including on-going maintenance, and putting in place the legal structure to support the investment.

“People have had plenty of time to comply with these rules, but I still see instances where the problem seems to have been parked in the ‘too difficult’ box, with property owners hoping that it will go away. It won’t. If you are in breach of the General Binding Rules, time is fast running out to put compliance measures in place before you run the risk of prosecution.”

Anyone anticipating any issues on this topic, or who would like to explore options in greater detail, should seek advice from our specialist team of lawyers. Speak to Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, on 0191 226 3796 or tom.wills@sintons.co.uk

Farmers must not forget the rules for water

New Farming Rules for Water were introduced by Defra in April last year, for which farmers were given a 12 month period of grace before being formally implemented, in order to allow them to adapt.

However, the implementation period has now concluded and farmers must ensure they are compliant. There are eight rules to comply with, five about managing fertilisers and manures and three on managing soils.

Generally speaking, the rules require farmers to:

  • keep soil on the land
  • match nutrients to crop and soil needs
  • keep livestock fertilisers and manures out of the water.

While the rules are now live, Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates at Sintons warns that a period of grace can prove problematic in some instances.

“When the rules were introduced last year, they were high profile and most farmers were aware of them. But, as they were not being enforced, it is possible that they have slipped from the mind of some,” he said.

“The majority of the rules cover the storage, application planning and actual application of organic manures and manufactured fertilisers. For example, manures must not be stored within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole, and fertiliser must not be applied within 2m of inland freshwaters or coastal waters.

“Further rules concern taking all reasonable precautions to prevent significant run off and erosion from farming operations, as well as protection against soil erosion by livestock, particularly within 5m of water. In addition, livestock feeders must not be positioned within 10m of water or within 50m of a spring, well or borehole.

“I do urge farmers to take a fresh look at the rules to ensure that they comply. There are only eight and they are straightforward. Most will be complying as a matter of course but it is worth checking as the Environment Agency will now be enforcing these rules.”

Full details can be found on the Gov.uk website. For any further advice about your compliance obligations, contact Tom Wills at Sintons on 0191 226 3796 or tom.wills@sintons.co.uk.

Holiday lets can provide new income streams

Providing holiday accommodation has long been a popular farm diversification. What may have started as letting a spare cottage during popular periods can become a significant year-round business using existing cottages and converted buildings often supplemented by new-build units or glamping pods too.

This is a predicted area of growth for farms and other rural businesses, particularly in light of Brexit, and is also an area investors are considering as an addition to their portfolios. Developing existing operations to generate both seasonal and out-of-season income, taking advantage of the growing ‘staycation’ trend, is bound to prove popular.

To convert existing facilities, or create new ones, is a significant investment to make, so it is important to clarify the legal and tax obligations from the outset. There can also be different tax advantages and pitfalls in furnished holiday lets, so advice from your solicitor and accountant is always essential in advance.

Planning permission must be considered in both instances, even if existing buildings are on your property, and no work should be undertaken before this is secured. Tenant farmers should also check with their landlord before proceeding.

Securing permission is usually a straightforward process, but in some instances there can be complications which can lead to delays. It is wise to leave enough time to factor in any potential delays, so any unexpected setbacks do not impact on your plans and budgets.

From a tax perspective, there is an ongoing discussion over whether Business Property Relief (BPR) can be applied to such a diversification, and what the differentiation is between a holiday cottage business and a property investment.

BPR provides relief from Inheritance Tax (IHT) on business assets at a rate of 50% or 100%, depending on the type of assets involved, how they are held and how long they have been held. BPR is therefore a very valuable relief for succession planning and can produce significant tax savings for beneficiaries.

HMRC’s standard position is that BPR cannot be applied to businesses that ‘consist wholly or mainly of dealing in securities, stocks or shares, land or buildings or making or holding investments’ and they argue that this definition includes holiday lets on the basis they are generally owned as land investments, rather than as an income-generating hospitality business like a hotel or bed and breakfast.

However, there have been recent successful challenges to this ruling involving holiday lets, where it has been successfully argued that if the owner of the let is also providing a high level of service then BPR is available. However, to qualify, the amount of services performed would seem to need to be above those of a relatively standard nature.

In the case of Grace Joyce Graham (deceased) v HMRC, it was considered that additional services offered – such as homemade food and drinks, bikes, games, swimming pool, sauna and gardens, alongside personal touches and time of the owner – distinguished the let from a typical holiday letting investment, as it was more akin to a family-run hotel and thus BPR was allowed. However. until HMRC formally changes its position, this will remain the exception rather than the rule. It is wise to clarify your tax liabilities from the outset and to establish the nature of your business and what is to be intended.

Diversification as a rural business can undoubtedly hold significant potential, but advice should always be sought if there is any doubt about the process or resulting obligations.

Tom Wills is Head of Rural at Sintons. Contact him on 0191 226 3796 or tom.wills@sintons.co.uk.

Commercial property – beware of pitfalls

With the uncertainty of Brexit looming ever closer, it certainly makes sense for farmers to be looking to maximise their income streams and utilising all their assets to the full. One seemingly simple diversification is to rent under utilised buildings to a commercial occupier.

The first thing to bear in mind is that many small rural businesses can struggle financially, often through no fault of their own with problems being caused by the health or other personal problems of key individuals. Therefore, it is always advisable to seek a guarantor for the rent as even the most diligent financial research may not spot the future problem.

Then it is always advisable to establish exactly what the business will do in order to identify any possible problems, such as anti-social vehicle movements, smell or noise. Such an exercise should reveal if the business is in any way involved in recycling or stockpiling material. Such businesses should be treated with extreme caution as there are many cases of landlords being left with piles of waste, which can be very expensive to clear.

There should always be a written lease entered into by both parties. Under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 tenants have an automatic right to renew when the initial rental period comes to an end. This can be excluded from the lease but must be done prior to entering into the lease. You may very well not wish to provide your tenant with security of tenure.

It is likely that you will require planning consent to switch a building from agricultural use to commercial use. However, there are various General Permitted Development rights in this regard, so it is not normally too much of a barrier. But beware that if you enter a commercial lease prior to the change being approved you could lose your permitted rights. If time is of the essence, you could enter an Agreement to Lease while the planning situation is determined. Bear in mind that if a building was constructed under an agricultural Permitted Development right, then it must remain in agricultural use for at least 10 years.

The lease should make clear who is responsible for meeting planning obligations. It should set out who is responsible for repairs, insurance, rates and other charges during the life of the tenancy. Nowadays, it is very easy to make a full photographic schedule of condition at the commencement of the tenancy, which is always useful later when dealing with tenant improvements and dilapidations.

I did mention rates in the paragraph above. Whilst agricultural buildings are exempt from business rates, it is very likely that rates will be applicable if the use is changed to commercial. The tenant should be liable for the rates, but if the building falls empty, then the landlord will be liable for empty property rates although there are exemptions available.

So while converting buildings to commercial use is a potential diversification, care, often in the form of professional advice, does need to be taken at the outset to avoid the pitfalls.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Rural team wins further praise from Chambers 2019

The rural team at law firm Sintons has won further recognition of its capability, this time from Chambers 2019.

Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates, was named by Chambers as a notable practitioner, in recognition of his outstanding capability and efforts in growing his department.

The specialist team at Newcastle-based Sintons has grown significantly in recent years and is widely regarded as being a key player in its field, with strong capability and a long-standing client base of rural families and businesses.

The latest praise for the team comes only shortly after similar recognition from Legal 500 2018, which again hailed the work of the team and recognised Tom Wills’ capability to handle the most complex of deals.

Mark Quigley, managing partner of Sintons, said: “Our rural team is regarded in the highest terms in the marketplace, in recognition of our many years of being at the very forefront of advising clients in this sphere. Many of our rural clients, both private clients and businesses, have been with us for years, and in many cases multiple generations, and we have built strong and trusting relationships. In addition to our strong and growing presence and capability in this area, led by the outstanding efforts of Tom Wills, this is an offering that few other firms can rival.

Cause of excitement: Agricultural Act 2018

This may not be a cause of high excitement amongst the general populous, but the thought of the Agricultural Act 2018 does stir the juices of us agricultural lawyers. The reason is simple: the last such event was the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995. At that point in time, I had just started reading Law and had little idea in which sector I would specialise. This is the first occasion when there will be an Act of Parliament concerning my chosen professional field.

Perhaps us lawyers should not be the only ones looking forward to it even if with trepidation, as it is widely expected to lay out the future for UK agriculture post Brexit. As such, it is potentially the most significant UK Act of Parliament for the rural economy since 1947!

As part of the run up to the Act, George Eustice, the Defra Minister for Farming, visited the North East in June and undertook a lively question & answer session with farmers, landowners and other rural stakeholders. He spoke confidently and was clearly in full command of his brief, which he should be by now.

His vision of a post-Brexit farming future was one where farmers were “generously rewarded” for providing public goods, whilst also achieving fair returns from the market for producing high quality food products. To avoid any nasty shocks there would be a transition period to the new system, but he could not say how long it would be. He foresaw multi-annual agreements with a move away from endless, and pointless, measurements of features and field sizes. Such a change would provide significant administrative savings for all parties.

He was confident that trade deals could be secured with the EU and elsewhere in the world, but without sacrificing our high standards and being swamped by cheap imports, nor being fettered by EU regulations. He wanted to move away from multiple agencies enforcing a huge rule book and towards a risk based system utilising local expertise and judgement.

He appreciated the role of EU socio-economic funding for the rural economy, such as LEADER and RDPE grants. He said that their replacements could be funded via the Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace all EU structural funding, or perhaps via part of the agricultural budget. What ever the outcome of the final decision, the administration of such funds would be much simpler without the EU involvement.

All in all, he painted a very rosy picture, but I did wonder if this vision was shared by the EU negotiators, the World Trade Organisation and indeed the UK Treasury. Perhaps we will have a better insight once the Agricultural Act 2018 sees the light of day.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Rural team again hailed by Legal 500

The specialist rural team at law firm Sintons has won praise from Legal 500 2018 for its expertise and breadth of service offering.

Legal 500 highlighted Sintons’ broad client base in this area – which includes estates, landowners, farming enterprises, private banks and investors – and vast expertise in matters including the acquisition and disposal of farming ventures, agricultural holdings and development projects, as well as the registration of mines and minerals portfolios.

The team has grown over the past few years to become one of the leading specialist rural advisors in the North East, attracting work from across the region as well as Northumberland, North Yorkshire and Cumbria. Many of its rural clients, both families and businesses, are long-standing, with Sintons routinely being the chosen advisor across a number of generations.

Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates at Sintons, was praised for his “ability to tackle complex deals” and for being “approachable and knowledgeable” in dealing with clients and peers.

Alan Dawson, chairman of Sintons and specialist in tax planning and trust work, and real estate partner Paul Liddle, were also highlighted as key names in Sintons’ rural offering.

Mark Quigley, managing partner at Sintons, said: “For many decades we have had a very strong offering at Sintons for rural clients, but in more recent years, our dedicated team has seen significant levels of growth and development to become a leading advisor highly respected by clients and peers alike.

“We are delighted this has been recognised by Legal 500 2018, which offers an independent analysis of the legal landscape, and that our hard work in this area is being acknowledged.”

Buying woodland – seeing the wood for the trees

Buying woodland has long been popular for a variety of different reasons. It has been viewed as a relatively cheap way of getting to own a little piece of England. Some seek woodland for environmental reasons, or have a desire to “work on” in their own woodland. Other woodland may be purchased for sport or as it forms an important screen to existing property. Larger woodlands may be acquired as an out-and-out investment.

So what should you be looking out for when considering purchasing a woodland? The most important consideration is to ensure that you will be able to manage the woodland in a way that will meet your objectives.

Woodland can be subject to landscape scale designations which can affect what you can do with the woodland. Such designations include National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. They can be subject to general environmental designations, such as SSSI or National Nature Reserve. Then there are woodland specific designations, such as Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland, Ancient Woodland Site and Tree Preservation Orders. All these designations can impact future management.

Is the woodland freehold or leasehold? It may seem odd to have a leasehold woodland but much of the land sold to the Forestry Commission for planting was sold on a 99 or, more usually, a 999 year lease. A long lease may not impact the value, but the lease may well contain some restrictive covenants or reserve some rights, which may not be compatible with what you wish to do.

Even freehold woodland may be subject to rights held by third parties or other restrictions. The usual such rights will be mineral and sporting. If you were to buy a woodland for its environmental value, could you tolerate somebody else filling it with pheasants?

Then access must be considered. If access is over third party land are the rights robust and how restrictive are they? Is access suitable for your needs, both physically and legally? Don’t forget the weak bridge 6 miles down the council road which is the only route out for artics loaded with timber. Are there public rights of way within the woodland or other third party rights within or through the woodland? Your planned additional drive may not be a great success if the woodland has become the favourite dog walking area for the village.

Woodland boundaries can be an area of contention, particularly where they abut grazing land. What condition are they in and who is responsible for their upkeep? Sheep can be expensive grazers if they get into newly planted woodland.

The woodland may be covered by a felling or management plan as approved by the Forestry Commission. This may contain some legal obligations, such as the need to replant felled areas with particular species, so it is good to know of such schemes early in the process. Failure to do the correct due diligence can be an expensive and disappointing surprise!

Having acted for numerous vendors and purchasers of woodland, I am now listed on the woodlands.co.uk website as a specialist and recommended solicitor for woodland transactions so do please give me a call if I can be of any assistance to you.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Whose land is it? The importance of protecting what is yours

For rural land owners, adverse possession is a serious subject indeed, and one which has been known to result in distressing and costly legal battles over the rights to even the smallest amounts of land. For this reason, it is imperative you protect yourself before falling foul to so called ‘squatters’ rights’ and to take action at the first opportunity if you fear you are involved in such a situation.

Put simply, adverse possession is the attempt to acquire legal title in land through continuous and uninterrupted occupation, which is usually ten or 12 years. This most commonly involves claims where land has not been inspected for some time.

Many people wrongly assume that such cases of ‘squatters’ rights’ apply to significant portions of vacant land or whole buildings which have been taken over, but usually that is not that case, and it is in fact modest amounts of land which are at stake. Many disputes centre on situations where, for example, families have extended their gardens into adjacent fields, moving the boundaries even slightly. Over time, this line of ownership could potentially be redrawn, if this is not addressed by the rightful proprietor.

However, it is important to remember that no claim can be made by a ‘squatter’ on land they legally hold under a lease or licence. Claims on unregistered land must be accompanied by proof of 12 years’ factual possession, with registered land requiring ten years.

Claims of adverse possession can be extremely serious for landowners. As such to help guard against any potential claims of adverse possession:

  • Ensure your land is registered at the earliest opportunity and details, including contact details, are keep updated
  • Thoroughly check land holdings and compare boundaries with any deeds or title documents that you have
  • Make sure any fences, walls, hedges or other boundaries are in line with how they are documented in title documents or deeds
  • Particularly where land is let on long-term tenancies, make sure boundaries are documented and checked, ideally with photographic evidence. Remind a tenant on agricultural tenancies that they may be in breach of their tenancy terms if they know of or allow any action to take place which may give rise to a claim of adverse possession.
  • Check and revisit boundaries at least every 24 months, particularly if you have any reason to suspect they may have changed (for example, a neighbouring landowner has been carrying out work on or near your boundary line).

If you have any reason to suspect your land has been encroached, it is essential to seek legal advice to establish your position, and to help ward off any claims for adverse possession.

Lewis Couth is a leading land and property dispute specialist at law firm Sintons. To speak to Lewis about this or any other matter, please contact him on 0191 226 3653 or lewis.couth@sintons.co.uk.

Killer animals and private paths

I recently came across an interesting situation which raised several issues regarding legal rights and the use of agricultural land. It concerned a block of land that had belonged to an estate. The land had been sold to two different owners some 50 years ago. By a quirk of geography, one part is in the shape of a “U”, with the other land forming the meat in the sandwich, so to speak.

The land was sold with the owner of the “U” having a pedestrian right of way, an easement, across the intervening land which is grassland. The access ran from gate-to-gate and was well used on a very regular basis. It was never challenged and both parties seemed content with its use for pedestrian access only, but it was not a public footpath.

All went well until one fine spring morning when the owner of the field through which the easement runs thought it a good idea to turn out a herd of cows and calves into said field. The first user of the path that morning got an ugly fright. Fortunately, no physical harm was done but considerable distress was caused.

The first issue to note is that the farmer thought that he could turn out what ever stock he felt like as there was no public right of way across the field. This is not the case. Under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 he had a Duty of Care to consider the safety of the users of the field. Furthermore, the Health & Safety Executive Information Sheet (17EW(Rev1)) relates to cattle “…in fields where the public have access…” It goes on to specify that it applies to all legal public access.

Only beef bulls grazing on their own are actually banned from fields with footpaths, but the guidance warns against putting cows and calves into such fields and advises that the temperament of the animals should be assessed before they are put into the field. As it is well known that cattle are excitable at spring turn out, the farmer would almost certainly have been held liable if an injury had occurred.

The next issue arose when the beneficiary of the easement sought to prove its existence. Where were the deeds? There were various relevant historic conveyances and the lawyer  (not Sintons I must add!) could not locate all the relevant documents in order to clarify the situation. This highlighted the benefit of (a) having good lawyers and (b) having your land holding and all associated rights properly recorded at the Land Registry.

Fortunately, this situation was resolved with no loss or injury to any of the parties involved, but it should never have arisen in the first place.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Consortium serves up opportunity for locals

A much-loved local pub has been saved by a North East business consortium after being put up for sale.

The Joiners Arms, on Wansbeck Street, Morpeth, will continue to operate while the purchase also safeguards 10 jobs after being snapped up by the local businessmen.

The deal was facilitated by Bradley Hall Chartered Surveyors and Estate Agents and Sintons.

Neil Hart, group managing director at Bradley Hall, said: “This purchase shows that the commercial property and business industry in Morpeth is still thriving. It is an iconic and bustling market town which is consistently growing in popularity with residents and visitors alike.

“The area has benefitted from a number of regeneration projects which continue to improve on what is already a well established a popular area.

“In an era which is seeing traditional pubs close their doors for good, The Joiners Arms continues to grow thanks to its homely and comfortable feel. We expect to see its popularity and clientele grow under the new ownership.

“The purchase also protects a number of jobs while looking to create more in the future. My clients are set to continue operating the business while introducing a number of minor improvements along the way.”

The Joiners Arms has become known for its real ale selection and has previously been featured in the CAMRA real ale guide. The lounge overlooks the river Wansbeck and is within walking distance of Morpeth town centre.

Tom Wills, Partner and Head of Agriculture & Estates, at Sintons said: “This was a fantastic opportunity to acquire one of Northumberland’s best loved pubs. This establishment has been a popular destination for several years, and the local community would have been very disappointed to see it close.”

As featured in The Journal Business section on 1/8/18.

Metal detecting: the law

Well, surely spring is finally here after a painfully drawn out winter. The clocks have changed, the snowdrops have at last given way to the daffodils, the fields are alive with new growth, ramblers and, quite possibly, metal detectorists.

Recent years have seen a great advance in the capabilities of affordable metal detectors. This, coupled with some spectacular finds, has led to a surge of interest in this pastime. This, in itself, is no bad thing. When conducted responsibly, metal detecting is a harmless hobby, which may uncover items of interest, and possibly value. Detectorists can be handy to know as they are usually happy to help in locating lost items or perhaps old metal pipework.

Anybody metal detecting should first obtain consent from the landowner and farmer. If not, they will most likely be trespassing. Ideally, they should be a member of the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) or the Federation of Independent Detectorists (FID). This is not too much to ask as it costs c£8/pa and the membership includes insurance which always provides some peace of mind. It also means that they are obliged to follow a code of conduct.

The main provisions of such codes are: always seek permission, follow the Country Code, disturb soil as little as possible, do not detect on designated land without the required permission, report all finds to the landowner and abide by The Treasure Act 1996.

The main land designations that apply will be Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It is worth remembering that many agri-environment scheme agreements will also restrict such activity. Should human remains be uncovered, the police should be informed and no further work carried out until the Home Office has issued a Licence.

All finds should be reported to the landowner in the first instance. Antiquities that do not qualify as “treasure” should be reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is run by the British Museum. This is not a legal requirement, but it is good practice to do so to ensure that the historic interest is recorded. The Treasure Act contains detailed definitions of exactly what constitutes “treasure”. For the sake of brevity, “treasure” is usually items that contain at least 10% precious metal (gold and silver) and that are over 300 years old, but not a find of a single coin. “Treasure” should be reported to the local Coroner. Failure to do so within 14 days is a criminal offence.

In no case does “Finders Keepers” apply! Any non-treasure find will invariably belong to the landowner but a division of spoils is not unreasonable and can be agreed in advance in a Search Agreement. The NCMD produces a model agreement. If the find is deemed to be “treasure” the Coroner will offer it for sale to the British Museum. The Coroner will then decide how the agreed price will be split between the finder, the landowner and possibly the tenant.

The unsavoury element of metal detecting is known as “Nighthawkers”. They detect mostly at night with no consent and no regard to designated sites. They steal any finds and such activity is a criminal offence. They should not be encouraged!

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

To contract or not to contract?

Given the contents of the Defra consultation on the future agricultural policy in England, particularly the proposed changes to the Direct Payment system, there will be some people that are now actively considering changing their farming arrangements. For larger farm businesses currently farming land under Farm Business Tenancies or those farmers looking to quit active farming, contract farming may appear as an attractive option.

Indeed it can be, but a recent legal case has highlighted what is required in order to create a legally defensible contract farming arrangement. The case was actually in Scotland and was heard in relation to a tenant farmer operating outside the terms of his agricultural tenancy but the principles outlined by the Scottish Land Court will have relevance for contract farming agreements across the UK.

The case, Fyffe v. Esslemont, concerned whether or not the tenant had breached the terms of his agricultural lease, which forbade sub-letting the land. He maintained that the arable land was farmed on a contract farming agreement. The Court held that this arrangement was a sham as it simply involved the exchange of paper invoices and the contractor keeping the crop. In this case, the tenant lost his statutory rights of protection. In non-tenancy related cases, if the contract farming arrangements were held to be false, valuable tax reliefs could be lost.

Helpfully, the Court set out the requirements to create a “true contract farming” agreement:

  • a form of contract for services under which the landowner engages an individual or corporate entity to farm the land on his behalf
  • normally the contractor provides the labour and equipment
  • the extent of the contractor’s discretion is a matter for negotiation in every case
  • the normal consideration payable to the contractor is a fee that may have a profit-related element
  • the farmer assumes risk with regard to his income
  • the only guaranteed payment is to the contractor, with any surplus after the other costs of production have been met split between the farmer and the contractor according to an agreed ratio.
  • if the contractor orders the inputs on behalf of the farmer, the farmer will pay for them, often through a separate bank account into which any resulting income is paid
  • the nature of such an agreement makes it essential that a formal contract regulating the rights and responsibilities of the parties and how it is to be administered is set in place.

As I so often have to say, it really is worth getting your farming agreements formally documented to ensure that they will stand up to scrutiny.

As an aside, in this case the tenant had diversified into a non-farming enterprise which was based on the holding and had become his main source of income. Although not integral to the case, the Court saw fit to comment on the needs of such diversification to be compliant with planning law and also the requirements of Business Rates.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

New housing: options are an option

Whilst there is still plenty of activity in the housing market, there does seem to be less exuberance than a year or two ago, perhaps as the uncertainty of Brexit draws closer. Hence Option Agreements are often being offered as a means of facilitating the purchase of development land. In essence, an Option Agreement allows the developer to purchase the option to buy the land within a fixed period of time for an agreed price. They serve to secure land for development without the initial high capital outlay, so are popular in periods of uncertain sales or limited lending.

Like all legal documents, an Option Agreement needs to be considered carefully, and legal advice sought, prior to signing. But what should you look out for?

Firstly, you must be confident that you are completely happy with the proposed outcome of the development, including consideration of local feelings. This may seem obvious, but I can think of several landowners who signed Option Agreements in the early days of wind farm development, who later wished they hadn’t.

You must also look carefully at how the purchase price is calculated. Is it £s/acre for the whole site, or has there been a percentage reduction to reflect that some areas within the site will remain undeveloped? Does the option extend to the entire site, including boundaries? It is not uncommon for developers to leave out areas that they may see as future liabilities.

If the Option involves staged purchases of a large site, how is this to be organised and valued? There can be a danger that early stage development can devalue part of the remaining site. This could be by restricting its use in the short term i.e. by restricting agricultural access, or by reducing its long term capital value i.e. by creating a ransom strip.

The length of the Option is also important. The usual length is 3-5 years, but may well contain provisions to be extended if the developer is still in the process of obtaining planning consent. Will such longer term arrangements tie in with your plans, particularly if land transfers are being considered?

An obvious drawback to the Option approach is that there could be a lack of urgency on behalf of the developer, even if there are obligations to avoid this included in the agreement. Such obligations can be hard to enforce. If the housing market softens, developers may drag their feet. If rapid capital release is required, a Promotion Agreement may be better. This would be signed with a land developer who would seek planning consent and then sell the site. They would be paid a percentage of the value, normally c20%, only on sale of the site. Thus their objective is to maximise value as quickly as possible.

As stated earlier, whatever the approach, taking professional advice is essential. With most developers happy to fund Land Agent and legal fees, there really is no excuse.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Your farm, your future

Well, let us hope that we have seen the last of the white stuff for this winter and that Spring is finally on its way. Whilst an inconvenience for most people, my thoughts were with those struggling to look after livestock in the atrocious conditions. One big positive was the numerous reports of farmers assisting those in need. A timely reminder that farmers don’t just produce food and look after the countryside, but that they are also vital to the rural community.

A minor casualty of the Beast from the East was a seminar that Sintons was co-hosting at Hexham Mart. We were working with Armstrong Watson and Barclays, and the seminar was entitled “Your Farm, Your Future”. I was poised to deliver a truly wondrous talk on what we didn’t know about the future and what legal steps should be taken to protect oneself from the general lack of knowledge. Then Defra launched its consultation on future farm policy………

Luckily, as most of the content was hardly a surprise, it did not completely torpedo my talk and we were able to record a “webinar” to ensure that the effort was not wasted. The webinar can be found on the Sintons website.

For those who may prefer a paper approach, or perhaps a taster, below I have tried to provide a very brief synopsis.

  • Change is coming. Embrace it. Don’t resist it.
  • UK farmers will still benefit from CAP until 2020 IF the UK & EU agree a post Brexit transition period of c2 years.
  • The farm budget will remain as is until 2022 IF the Government lasts that long.
  • “Large” direct payments will be capped from 2020, with the view to moving £150m to agri-environment schemes in Year 1. Those receiving more than £25,000 could be affected.
  • Over time, direct payments will be reduced to zero and all payments will be for the provision of public goods. The timescale is unknown, as is the final total budget but it is likely to be a great deal less than the current total.
  • Upland farming will be supported, but there is no detail on what that may look like.
  • Currently there is a large difference in the performance of the top 25% of farms and the “average” farm. There is no future in being “average”.
  • Time to restructure the business?
  • Time for succession?
  • Any new farming agreements must accommodate at least two different support systems, perhaps more.
  • With little detail on the future, new agreements must be able to consider all options, including such things as dual use, entitlements, headage payments etc
  • Written Partnership Agreements, Wills and Power of Attorneys are even more essential.

I trust that that gives you a flavour but do take a look at the webinar.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Proprietary estoppel – But you promised!

The High Court recently awarded the youngest daughter of a Somerset farmer almost half of the value of the family farm in compensation for promises made by her late father. Lucy Habberfield had claimed an entitlement to the whole farm by virtue of proprietary estoppel, saying she had devoted her working life to the farm because her father had assured her she would take over when he retired. Lucy worked on the farm from the early 1980s until 2013, when she left following an argument with one of her sisters.

A claim in proprietary estoppel is based on three main elements. Firstly, there must be an assurance or representation (the promise) made to the claimant. Secondly, there must be a reliance on this representation by the claimant. Finally, the claimant must suffer a detriment by their reasonable reliance. The courts will determine whether each of the three elements is present, before going onto conclude whether it would be unconscionable, or unfair, for the promisor to go back on what they said.

The court then has to determine what relief would be appropriate, in other words what the claimant should receive in satisfaction of the promise made to them. The court has a broad discretion as to what award to make. This can be complicated by the fact that some detriments (such as the receipt of low pay) can be quantified more easily than others (for example giving up the opportunity to farm elsewhere). Most, but not all, reported proprietary estoppel cases relate to farmland.

In Habberfield v Habberfield Lucy’s claim was defended by her mother, Jane, who had received the entirety of her late husband’s estate, the 220-acre Woodrow Farm, near Yeovil. Jane denied that any promises had been made to Lucy, or if they had been made by her husband, Frank, that she could not be bound by them. Jane further said that if any assurances were proven, that Lucy had not suffered any detriment and had exaggerated her work on the farm.

However, the judge hearing the case disagreed. He determined that Frank had made statements to Lucy with the intention of them being taken seriously, that they were sufficiently certain and also made with Jane’s authority. Lucy was found to have suffered detriment in her reliance on Frank’s assurances by working long hours, for low pay and taking few holidays. The judge further found that Lucy’s commitment to farming at Woodrow rather than building a successful dairy farm of her own elsewhere was relevant detriment.

The judge decided that Lucy’s expectation was that she would have a viable dairy farm at Woodrow. Taking into account a number of considerations it was concluded that to satisfy Lucy’s claim she should receive a cash payment of the value of some of the farmland and the farm buildings, being £1.17m. A cash payment was considered appropriate so as to avoid splitting the farmhouse from the rest of the holding and to allow Jane to remain in her home.

Lucy Habberfield’s success contrasts with that of Sam James, who similarly claimed that his late father had promised that the family farm would pass to him. On Charles James’ death his estate passed to his widow, Sandra, and his two daughters, Karen and Serena, to the exclusion of Sam.

In James v James the judge considered that Sam was unable to give evidence of any particular promise or act creating an expectation, intended to be relied upon, that his father leave any particular property to him. The judge went onto say that even if a representation had been found, that Sam would have failed in demonstrating any detriment. He considered that Sam had been paid the same as the other farmworkers, if not more. Further, in the past Sam had been made a partner in the family farming and haulage business and when this was dissolved he had received numerous assets and associated cash of £200,000.

Each proprietary estoppel case, as with any other type of claim, turns on the specific facts. In Habberfield there was independent documentary evidence suggesting an intention that Lucy would end up with ownership of the farming unit and stock. In contrast, in the James case there was evidence that Charles had taken advice in relation to succession issues and there was no reference in the supporting documentation to any promises made to Sam. The judge commented that he felt Sam’s eagerness to inherit the farm from his father has caused him to persuade himself that he was being promised something that he was not. Sam was ordered to pay the defendants’ costs of the proprietary estoppel claim (a different costs order being made in respect of an associated will challenge by Sam).

Such cases demonstrate the importance of documenting any promises or agreements as to future intentions for farmland, or any other property. Whilst you may have a will in place dealing with particular assets, if the terms of your will are inconsistent with any promises or agreements you have made in your lifetime, the will does not necessarily take precedence.  A failure to document promises or agreements and to consider these in light of your will may result in lengthy and costly litigation and the division or sale of family farmland. It can also cause irreparable damage to relationships between those who find themselves on opposing sides of any dispute.

Newcastle law firm Sintons can assist with succession planning and have particular expertise in working with rural families on a wide range of issues. Sintons can also advise should a dispute arise regarding the passing of farmland or other assets.

Emma Saunders is a Senior Associate specialising in contentious probate matters, including proprietary estoppel claims. To speak to her please call 0191 226 3293, or email her at emma.saunders@sintons.co.uk.

Will you succeed?

Another year starts and, before you know it, along comes another case of assumed succession resulting in a messy court case. The latest example originates from Dorset with a farm valued at £3m at stake.

As so often happens, the son had worked on the farm for his entire life and believed that he would inherit it on the death of his father, believing that he had been “promised” such an outcome. It nearly came to pass as such a Will was drawn up back in 2004 but never executed. The son had received land, capital and a haulage business from his Father during his lifetime, so his Mother felt that other family members should benefit on her husband’s death.

On the Father’s death, aged 81, his last Will revealed that his son had been specifically excluded from inheriting and the estate was to be split between his wife and two daughters. A little peeved, the son promptly sued his Mother and sisters for what he believed was rightly his.

The Judge ruled against him. He believed that the father was of sound mind when he made the Will and that the division of the total asset pool was rational and balanced given how the son had benefited during his father’s lifetime. The Judge went as far as to state “In my judgment, Sam’s eagerness to inherit the farmland from his father has caused him to persuade himself that he was being promised something when he was not.”

We all know that making an assumption is a great deal easier than sitting down with the family and having a full and frank discussion regarding future plans. Sadly, only the latter can possibly result in the effective succession of assets. Naturally, here at Sintons we would be delighted to assist in both scenarios.

If you were not to engage us to assist with proper succession planning, and chose instead to rely on false promises and wild assumptions, then we may also be able to help sort out the likely messy outcome. We have recently been joined by Emma Saunders who has come to Sintons from a top London law firm. She is a rare specialist in contentious probate and disputed Court of Protection matters, as well as disputes arising from Trusts. Another string to our heavily strung bow!

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Ringing the changes in the telecom market

The introduction of the Digital Economy Act last year probably did not generate a great deal of discussion over the proverbial farm gate or around the ring at the local mart. However, there is at least one element which should be of interest to many farmers and landowners.

An early result of the Act was the introduction of the new Electronic Communication Code, which came into force on the 28th December 2017. If you really want to know, this replaced the code which was introduced by the Telecommunication Act 1984, which seems rather a long time ago in the field of electronic communications. I fear that I may not have gripped the readership at this point, but if you have a phone mast on your land, or may have in the near future, the below will be of significance.

The objective of the new Code is to make life easier for telecom operators in the hope that it will result in improved communications for us all. In so doing, it tilts the playing field away from landowners.

Under the new Code, which applies to renewal and new leases entered into after 28 December 2017 operators will have the right to share sites without seeking the consent of the landowner. They will also have the right to assign the site lease without the need for landowner consent. These changes will apply regardless of the terms of any written agreement.

The operators now also have the right to upgrade equipment without landowner consent, although there should be no more than a minimal adverse visual change and no additional burden on the landowner. What this actually means in practice will no doubt be decided in due course via conflict!

The valuation basis for new agreements will also change. Now, instead of the figure being determined by what the site is worth to the operators, it is based on the value to the landowner. Rents may therefore increase in some cases, for example for city-centre sites, but may decline in rural areas.While the Code rights will still be included in a written agreement, most likely a lease, between the two parties, the lease will no longer be included under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. New telecoms agreements will only be protected by the new Code and there can be no opting out.

Operators will continue to have the power to place equipment on private land, and keep it there after an agreement has ended, even if no agreement can be reached on a lease. “Payaways”, where an owner secures a cut of the income from operator-operator site sharing agreements, will no longer be permitted.

There is a message in here in that if you are asked to enter into such an agreement, early advice is key to achieving the best deal and knowing your rights.  Existing leases when up for renewal sometimes don’t go as far as operators require in a changing technological world and there is still wriggle room in negotiations and potentially a deal to be had!

All in all, it does not look like a great deal for landowners and rents will most likely decline. However, will it meet its main objective of improving communications? Time will tell, but disincentivising a crucial party in the arrangements seems an odd way to try and achieve success.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Sintons’ rural team attracts further praise from Chambers 2018

The head of Sintons’ specialist rural team has been hailed by Chambers 2018 as being one of the leaders in his field.

Tom Wills, Head of Agriculture and Estates at Sintons, was said to be a notable practitioner by Chambers – an annual assessment of law firms and their lawyers, based on factors including examples of their work and client testimonials.

Tom as his department were recently also rated highly by Legal 500, which hailed the team as being “top notch”.

Sintons’ rural team advises rurally-based businesses and families throughout the North of England, and has become the trusted advisor to many of them over the course of several generations.

Mark Quigley, managing partner of Sintons, said: “Our rural team is acknowledged as being one of the best in the region, so we are very pleased that again its work, and that of Tom Wills, is being recognised.

“Our vision as a firm is to set the standard for legal excellence, and in doing so, to become the law firm of choice for individuals, businesses and individuals regionally and nationally. We are pleased that the latest Chambers rankings, coming so soon after our exemplary Legal 500 ratings, offers further proof that we are making great strides towards achieving that.”

Is your livelihood threatened by Victorian Law?

Like most people, I cannot resist reading those articles that begin along the lines of “5 things to do to make a fortune” or “3 ways of succeeding in love”. Hence my eyes were drawn to a recent article entitled “10 Common Financial Mistakes that Farmers Make”. The first, and apparently most common mistake, came as rather a surprise.

Myself, and plenty of others in advisory professions, have spent plenty of energy in encouraging our farming clients to ensure that they have written and up-to-date documentation covering their business arrangements. However, the article stated that not having a written partnership agreement was still the most common, and most significant, financial mistake made by farmers.

In my experience, this is most common in the situation of a “family partnership”, where the parties merely presume that they are in partnership and find it too awkward to confirm it properly. This really is a big mistake. Should something happen to the “senior partner”, those left behind may well find that they are not in fact partners in law and may struggle to retain the business. For example, if the Father was to die intestate (i.e. without leaving a will), the farming business could pass to his wife, leaving the children with nothing, even though they considered themselves “partners” and in effect on the ground may be running the farm day to day. The wife could be separated and/or may not be the mother of the children or may see a land/asset pay day through sale.

Even if the business structure is held to be a partnership, with no written agreement, the outcome is far from ideal and probably not what was intended. Should a partner die, wish to leave the partnership, or be in serious dispute, then the partnership would be governed by the 1890 Partnership Act – enacted when Queen Victoria sat upon the throne!

Another situation that can cause serious difficulties is where somebody thinks they are a partner, but others involved see them in a different light. This may seem far-fetched but it can arise, usually involving children within a farming family. One or more of the children may view themselves as partners, perhaps due to some long forgotten conversation, but have a minimal involvement in the business. Again, we would refer to the 1890 Act, which isn’t terribly explicit, so costly court proceeding could result.

It hardly seems ideal that 125 year old legislation could ruin your livelihood, but that could be what awaits for those operating a farming partnership without a written agreement. I should not now need to tell you what to do! And while you are about it, why not ensure that your other legal documents are all up-to-date.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

‘Top notch’ rural team praised by Legal 500 2017

The specialist agriculture and estates team at law firm Sintons has been hailed as “top notch” by Legal 500 2017.

The team was ranked highly in the Legal 500 listings, and drew praise for providing an “excellent level of service” to its wide-ranging client base, as well as for its ability to handle a multitude of issues.

Led by Tom Wills, head of agriculture and estates, and with a team including Sintons’ Chairman Alan Dawson, clients include a range of rural businesses and families, with relationships frequently spanning a number of generations.

Legal 500 is widely regarded as the clients’ guide to the best law firms and top lawyers in the UK. Research is based on feedback from clients, submissions from law firms and interviews with leading lawyers and a team of researchers who have unrivalled experience in the market.

Mark Quigley, managing partner of Sintons, said: “Sintons is a well-known and trusted name in acting for families and businesses, and often our relationships span many years and indeed generations. We pride ourselves on the legal excellence and bespoke personal service we offer, and are very pleased that Legal 500 has again recognised us for this.

“Our vision as a firm is to set the standard for legal excellence and in doing so to become the law firm of choice for individuals, businesses and organisations regionally and nationally. Our agriculture and estates team is just one area in which we are making great strides towards achieving this.”

Avoiding baled waste

Fly tipping is a constant problem and can be an expensive eyesore for the landowner who then becomes responsible for clearing the dumped material. Unless you are very unlucky, the expense incurred in clearing the fly tipped material is unlikely to be catastrophic.

That can not be said for the well-known practice of waste criminals using legitimate commercial leasehold sites for the illegal storage of waste material. This would typically be material that is expensive to dispose of legally, with tyres being the most common. There are far too many instances of storage space and/or hard standing being leased to an unknown quantity who fills it with tyres and then disappears, leaving the owner with a very expensive problem.

Now that most people are aware of the practice, the criminal waste fraternity has come up with a new wheeze. The last year has seen several instances of baled waste being deposited in the north east. The bales are wrapped so appear as rectangular silage bales, so hardly look out of place on farmland or around a steading.

Reducing the risk of such dumping on farmland requires vigilance and also restricting access, where possible, to roads and tracks which could be used by heavy goods vehicles for dumping waste.

The best way of minimising the risk when letting farm buildings and hard storage areas, is to insist on a formal, legally binding lease to be signed by all parties. This will allow background checks to be undertaken on the lessor prior to entering into the agreement. The nod, wink and handshake approach is only inviting trouble.

The Environment Agency reports that clean up costs for such incidents in the North East so far this year, are running at an average of around £70,000. It really does not seem to be worth the risk for the sake of some relatively modest expenditure on legal fees.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Drones and the law

There is no doubt that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Drones as they are better known as, are playing an increasingly important role in our lives. Not long ago, we really only associated them with extraordinary military operations in faraway places. But then they got smaller and many more civilian uses became apparent, including survey work for farming businesses.

As with most technology, time has delivered a great decline in both price and scale. Drones can now be purchased for as little as £500 and can be flown via a smart phone. What began as a weapon, became a tool and is now a toy!

Cheap technology does have its advantages, but it also has its downsides. Drones have endangered commercial aircraft, flown contraband into prisons, been used to “monitor” legal activities, scared endangered wildlife and harassed individuals on their own property.

It has been suggested that anybody affected could simply shoot down the offending drone if it is over their property. This is not a recommended course of action as it could easily result in a charge for criminal damage and the loss of your weaponry.

The law surrounding drones is currently evolving along with their usage. At present, there is no requirement to register a drone or as a user provided that the drone weighs less than 20kg and is not intended for commercial use. Heavy drones can only be used in designated “dangerous flying” areas and user registration is administered by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Given that modern drones can weigh less than 1kg, it is a bit of a free for all, although there is a Code of Conduct for drone operators.

Operators must avoid flying drones within 150 metres of a congested area and 50 metres of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure not under the control of the pilot. You will also need to fly the aircraft “within sight”. This means you can’t go above 400 feet in altitude or further than 500 metres horizontally. If you were wondering about the mixed use of metric and imperial, ask the CAA as it introduced it, not I!

This situation is set to change. The Government has recognised the need for better regulation but is keen not to strangle the sector with red tape. It has announced that soon all drones weighing more than 250g will need to be registered with the CAA. In addition, a new drone safety awareness test means owners will have to prove that they understand UK safety, security and privacy regulations.

So, regulations are trying to keep pace with the technology. In the meantime, don’t be tempted to shoot one down, but do be tempted to see how drone technology could help your business.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

This article was recently featured in the Darlington & Stockton Times

Wayleave or easement

Here is a question that I bet you have not been asked recently down the pub: “What’s the difference between a wayleave and an easement?” Perhaps not everybody’s idea of interesting conversation, but with the current proliferation of development and infrastructure upgrades, it is worth knowing your wayleaves from your easements.

A wayleave is an agreement between a land owner or occupier and a third party, permitting that third party to do something for example to access the land to carry out works in return for compensation. Typically, they could be used to allow utility companies to install cables or pipework under, on or over the land, with the right of access for maintenance and repair. The compensatory payment can take the form of a lump sum but is usually an annual payment.

Wayleaves are not permanent and can be time limited, although some wayleaves are protected by statutory code powers. Compensatory payments can be split between the owner and the occupier. If it is the landowner that requires the service that is being installed, it may be better dealt with via a customer service contract than a wayleave.

An easement is a right that someone holds over land owned by somebody else. Easements are attached to the land and are normally created by deed. They may also be registered on the title as held by the Land Registry. They are often considered to last in perpetuity but can be extinguished and some may also be time limited. Examples of easements include the right of access and the right for services to pass beneath neighbouring property.

For an easement to be created, an area of land must benefit from the easement on land nearby which is in different ownership. The land will normally be adjacent, but could be slightly removed. A remote house or steading may enjoy the right of access across several parcels of land in different ownership before the public highway is reached.

The compensatory payment or premium if you like for an easement is usually made as a lump sum and could be considerable. However, it also could have a negative impact on the value of the land subject to the easement as it will affect and restrict the land going forward.

Some infrastructure that is newly installed (such as telecoms equipment may have statutory protection and even if you wanted to it may be impossible to remove the media and achieve vacant possession of the land despite what the provisions of the agreement prescribe.  This can be very problematic for development proposals and could have a significant detrimental effect on the land.  Wayleaves and easements do have one thing in common: if badly drafted or badly thought through, they can have adverse consequences for the landowners involved.

Therefore, it is essential to take professional advice early in the process of negotiating a wayleave or an easement.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

The joy of registration

These days, it is not often that you hear people talking about the benefits of land registration. It seems rather old hat, but it is still very relevant.

The roll out of “compulsory” land and property registration in England began in the 1990s. This meant that all property had to be registered with HM Land Registry on transfer, and there was a push to encourage the voluntary registration of land with discounted fees available. Given that the North East was the last English region to have compulsory registration and that large swathes of land in the region does not change hands very often (if ever), it is thought that there is more unregistered land in the North East than anywhere else.

In order to prove ownership of unregistered land, you will need to provide the relevant deeds and associated documents, and there could be a few of these if the farm land holding has chopped and changed over the years. These are normally securely held by a solicitor or bank, but do you know where yours are? If registered, the ownership is held on a single electronic document stored securely by HM Land Registry. This will include a clear plan of the holding.

This means that any boundaries can be easily checked and most disputes can be swiftly settled. It also means that any land transaction can be facilitated quickly, as they wont be held up by having to prove ownership. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the removal of the risk of losing land via adverse possession.

Adverse possession is often referred to as “squatters’ rights” which conjures up visions of undesirables taking possession of empty houses in urban locations. However, land can also be susceptible to such actions. While caravan dwellers may be obvious, creeping gardens, fences and surruptious use of secluded, off-lying land may not be so obvious, leading to claims of possession.

Other interests can also be registered against land whether it is registered or not such as leases, easements and charges.  This is much more difficult to achieve without the consent of the owner if the land is registered thereby minimising mistakes and even fraud!

The downside of land registration is that it involves a fee. However, it is likely that this fee will need to be paid one day on a compulsory basis due to death or life time transfer. The fees for voluntary registration carry a 25% discount plus the advantages and protections outlined above so it could be money very well spent.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Key points to consider before embarking on rural property development work

Despite the worries over Brexit and the uncertainties following the election, our farming and landowning clients are showing a continued appetite for property development. This is being encouraged by continued low interest rates, shortage of office space in some areas, a relatively benign planning regime and the introduction of Permitted Development Rights for the conversion of some farm buildings.

If you are considering some development work, here are some key points to consider before embarking on the project:

  • Ownership

This may sound obvious, but in a farm scenario it may not be entirely straightforward. Time may lead to incorrect assumptions being made regarding the ownership of farm assets. Elements of the assets, land or buildings, may be in a different, historic, family ownership. When considering ownership, do not forget the access to the site. Uncle Bob may be quite content with agricultural vehicles crossing his land, but may not be so keen on the idea of development traffic and an increased amount of domestic traffic.

  • Requirements of the Site

Following on from the above, is the existing access, including from where it joins the public highway, suitable for the proposed development and is it free from any restrictions? Are there existing rights of drainage that can be utilised or a right to tap into existing services? If so, are they suitable for the proposed development? For example, an existing septic tank may well not be able to accommodate additional development and inadequate power supplies can be expensive to upgrade.

  • Restrictions upon the Site

It is not uncommon to find rights of adjoining owners or third parties affecting rural development sites. Rights of way can impact a site, while mineral rights may be an issue if deep foundations are required. Sporting rights have been used to block developments on green field sites and the registration of the site as a Village Green can also frustrate.

Rural sites can often be burdened by restrictive covenants. Previous owners can have retained the right to benefit from the development uplift or a right of pre-emption. These issues can often be resolved, but may threaten the viability of the proposal.

  • Consents

Planning permission is the most obvious consent required and an early conversation with the relevant Planning Officer will give a good indication of whether the initial investment will be worthwhile. Don’t assume that the Permitted Development Rights for small scale conversion of agricultural buildings to residential use will negate the need for planning permission. Many planning authorities seem to be doing their best to thwart such development. If existing buildings on the site are Listed, Listed Building Consent will be required. Consent may also be needed for any work affecting trees on the site.

  • Grant

With possibly the last tranche of CAP rural development grants now on stream, there may be grant aid available if you are developing for commercial or tourism use. It is worth checking what is available in your area.

Given the above, I should not really need to stress the importance of holding early discussions with your professional advisers. Sadly, this does not always happen. There are still times when we are asked to sort out costly and time-consuming problems which could have been avoided with the right advice at the outset.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

This article was featured in the Darlington and Stockton Times – 3/8/2017.

Gathering in the paperwork

The sun is shining, the May is out. The trees are dressed in their most vibrant green. The forage fields are rolled. The lambs are sparkling white and frolicking in the buttercups. The thistles are yet to show. All in all, the countryside is looking at its best. What an ideal time to get the camera out and get some fantastic pictures of the farm for that glossy brochure to be released later this year!

This seems a pretty obvious step in preparing a farm for sale, but there are other just as important tasks which often seem to be overlooked. There is invariably a large bundle of documents associated with a farm sale and it is so worth while to pull all that documentation together well in advance of going to market. As a solicitor, there is nothing more frustrating than a farm sale being delayed, or even pulled, because the right paperwork cant be located when required.

One area that is particularly relevant to the North East is private water supplies. Many of our farms may have originally been part of a large estate, or simply have been served by a large, private supply passing through various land ownerships and serving several end users. Often, the rights and responsibilities of these supplies is not properly documented, if documented at all! Even the location of the pipework can present a mystery.

For buyers from elsewhere, this type of arrangement is an anathema and they can be very reluctant to part with a large sum of money for a property without a legally robust water supply. I can think of two major farm sales in the region that fell apart due to concerns over the private water supplies. Although there may be a cost attached, it is well worth formalising the water supplies before going to market. The same applies to shared septic tanks although they are often simpler.

A buyer will of course expect to see Title plans, but all documents relating to the land will be required. These may include tenancy agreements, sporting and other rights, acreage schedules, cropping, input and fertility records, BPS claims and agri-environment scheme contracts, abstraction rights, wayleaves and easements. There will also need to be a definitive plan of rights of way, plus any third party reserved rights such as rights of access or timber extraction from the neighbouring forest.

Then there are further considerations attached to the buildings. Are they Listed and can you find the Energy Performance Certificates? Are there any planning consents in place, do the tenants pay their rent and what are the Council Tax rates? There might be Building Regs Certificates to gather up along with safety documentation such as boiler safety certificates, electrical inspections and asbestos surveys. A recent concern for buyers is broadband. What is the download speed and capacity of the network? Is high speed broadband available?

A farm sale is not just a pretty picture and a nice map. If a sale is to progress smoothly, then a considerable amount of work needs to have been done before the first potential vendor sets foot on the place. It makes my life a great deal easier to!

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Cattle and countryside users

Well, spring has finally sprung. Or perhaps it has leapt straight into summer in one go – as I write the sun is out and the temperature is in the 20s. After the cool dry spell, some rain and the warmth has certainly got things growing. Most cattle are now out, some having been held back due to limited grass growth, but they are now enjoying themselves in the fresh air.

They are not the only ones – the better weather has also bought the people out to utilise  rights of way and the right to roam. Sadly, people and cattle can be an imperfect mix. Virtually every year there are unfortunate incidents of people being seriously injured, even killed, when encountering cattle whilst utilising public access.

So, what does the law say about the situation? It actually says surprisingly little on the specific issue. Section 59 of The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 prohibits bulls or recognised dairy breeds (eg Ayrshire, Friesian, Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry) from being kept in fields containing public rights of way, with certain exceptions. Beef bulls are also banned from such fields unless accompanied by cows or heifers.

However, there are several more general legal principles which can apply. Anybody can be found to have been negligent if they have failed to take reasonable care, which has resulted in an injury to another. This is the most common way that animal keepers are found to be liable for incidents that result in injuries.

Section 2 of the Animal Act 1971 imposes strict liability on animal keepers where the animal has caused damage or injury in certain circumstances. Strict liability imposes liability without fault, so a cattle owner could be found liable even if precautions had been taken. Unfortunately, the “certain circumstances” are not really defined.

A duty of care must be afforded to visitors (Occupiers Liability Act 1957) and trespassers (Occupiers Liability Act 1984). These Acts do not apply to users of public rights of way. Such users are not classified as “visitors” as they cannot be excluded. The 1957 Act does apply to users of permissive access.

Then there is Health & Safety…

The Health and Safety at work Act 1974 lays out the general responsibilities that employers have to their employees and members of the public. It applies where mitigation measures are “reasonably practical” so should not result in ridiculous demands or expense. The HSE has produced a useful leaflet on the issue of cattle and rights of way which should be compulsory reading for all farmers affected. It is Agricultural Information Sheet 17EW(Rev1) and can be downloaded here.

The joys of summer. Take care.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Worry about shooting worrying dogs

Dogs worrying sheep is an ongoing, and seemingly increasing, rural crime. It is estimated that 15,000 sheep were killed by dogs in the UK during 2016. This has led to the establishment of the SheepWatch website and an annual survey being undertaken by the National Sheep Association. Most recently, just before Easter, the “Sheep-Wise” campaign was launched in Scotland. With the fields full of young lambs and heavily pregnant ewes, it seems a good time to refresh ourselves on the rather complex law surrounding the issue of shooting dogs that are worrying livestock.

Contrary to popular belief, farmers do not have the legal right to shoot dogs that are worrying their livestock. What they do have is the legal defence for such action. All property, including dogs, enjoys a level of protection under the law, so shooting a dog can amount to criminal damage. If a farmer is to rely on this defence, he would need to show that he believed that his livestock was in immediate danger and that his actions were reasonable. What constitutes “reasonable” will depend on the facts.

He would also run the risk of being sued for damages by the dog’s owner for trespass to goods. In which case, he would need to rely on the defence available under the Animals Act 1971.  To do so he must show that he believed on reasonable grounds that either: the dog was worrying or about to worry the livestock and there were no other reasonable means of ending or preventing it; or, that the dog had been worrying livestock, had not left the vicinity and was not under anyone’s control and there were no practicable means of finding out to whom it belonged. There is a strict requirement to inform the police within 48 hours, and any failure will prevent subsequent reliance on the defense in civil proceedings.

The use of a rifle or other Section 1 firearm is likely to lead to the revocation of the Firearms License as it is unlikely that shooting dogs will be listed as a reason to hold the firearm. Use of a shotgun could result in a wounded dog and prosecution by the RSPCA under Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If the farmer pursues the dog, he could be liable for trespassing with a firearm. Whatever the situation, it is likely that the police would review whether the farmer was suitable to own a firearm.

All in all, while shooting a dog worrying livestock may seem a suitable solution, it could cause greater problems than it solves. It should only be seen as a last resort.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Will you succeed after Brexit?

Our relationship with the EU has entered a new phase. The signing of Article 50 seemed to signal the end of the “phoney war” and we now seem to be busy sparring, with both sides throwing out extreme demands as positions are established prior to the real negotiations taking place.

We know little at this stage, but we do know that the Article 50 process is irreversible and will conclude in two years time, although this period can be extended with the unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining Member States, which somehow seems unlikely. Some “Remainers” don’t seem to have given up on the hope of the UK staying within the EU. They may have a cause as it is hardly unusual for the EU to ignore its own rules to achieve its political objectives, but Mrs May seems steadfast in her resolve.

So what is in store for agriculture post 2019? We do know that the existing support payments will remain until 2020 and that multi-annual schemes should be honoured if they extend beyond that date. Other than that, we know very little as Defra has been very tight lipped on the subject ever since last June. So what can we surmise?

I do not envisage a radical change in agricultural policy post 2019. The reason being is that Defra does not have the capability to design and implement any new policy in such a timescale. It often seems to struggle with the day job and now it must play its part in the Brexit negotiations which will include trade and the very thorny issue of fisheries. Coupled to those difficulties is the fact that it has little experience in policy creation as it has been able to leave it to the French for 40 years. Plus it has little ground level knowledge as it has no core staff outside London and it must also deal with the devolved administrations.

Thus I foresee “less of the same”. The policy structure will remain the same but direct payments will reduce to zero as they have no political support in Westminster and will be trashed by the media. “How long will the taper period be?” and “How much of the funding will be transferred to agri-environment support?” will be the key questions.

I am afraid that nor do I foresee a great bonfire of red tape. There will be some headline grabbers, such as the demise of the silly three crop rule, but the future of much of the regulation will be dependent on our trading relationship with the EU. In addition the green lobby seems to think that all EU environmental regulation is sacrosanct and must be defended at all cost.

Talking of trade, here lies the really dangerous “unknown”. The EU is currently by far our largest export customer and is particularly important for the lamb trade. Our markets are also protected by EU tariffs. Will we still be able to trade freely with the EU and will our internal markets be sacrificed for free trade with new partners? If the answers are “No” and “Yes”, UK agriculture, and particularly the red meat sector, will be in for a very nasty re-adjustment.

Change is constant and we are well used to price volatility, but we are also used to some stability on support and regulation as the CAP moves on a c7 year cycle. The difference post 2019 is that change could be fast and furious across all aspects of your business. Are you up for the challenge? Is your business structure fit for purpose? Will succession help your business succeed?

For those approaching the twilight of their farming career, could this be the moment to step aside and let the next generation take the lead? The forthcoming uncertainty will require energy, combined with speed of thought and action, in order to see the business through. How does your current business look with no direct subsidy? Significant changes may be required to the existing business model, which may involve increasing non-farming income.

At the very least, some no-holds barred discussions need to take place between those involved in the business, in order that all parties are aware of the threats and possible opportunities, and to ensure that the business is structured in the best possible way.

Yes, I am afraid that this does mean reviewing the paperwork. Does the Partnership Agreement properly reflect the current management of the business? Are the conditions of the tenancy being met? Is the FBT fit for purpose? Does the Contract Farming Agreement accommodate sufficient price volatility? If you are going to enter any new agreement, is it sufficiently flexible given the uncertainty ahead? While you are about it, you might as well check that your Will is up to date.

It seems that we have a 2-3 year window of relative stability before the post EU uncertainties kick-in. This surely is the opportunity to get your farming business into tip-top condition ready for the challenges ahead.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Article 50 – Brexit – What might it mean for farming?

Well, after a 9 month gestation period, Article 50 has finally been triggered, so commencing the one-way process which will culminate with the UK leaving the EU most likely at the end of March 2019. In theory, the two year negotiating period could be extended but this would require the unanimous agreement of the remaining 27 Member States, which seems unlikely. Anyway, 2019 would be the logical time to leave as it would be at the end of the EU budgetary and parliamentary period.

We are now in uncharted water as no country has attempted to leave the EU before and the Article 50 process is deemed to be irreversible. The multi-billion pound question is what will Brexit mean for UK agriculture? At present, no-one seems to have much idea, least of all Defra. Ever since the referendum the Ministers have been particularly tight lipped about what a UK agricultural policy may look like post Brexit.

In the short term, we do know that BPS style payments will continue until 2020 and that existing socio-economic and agri-environment schemes will be honoured, even when they extend beyond 2020. After that, there are three main areas of uncertainty:

  1. Funding

It would seem unlikely that direct, BPS style, subsidies would last long in the white heat of Westminster, where they have virtually no political support. The question is “how long will the taper period be?” in order to avoid the “economic cliff edge” to which Mrs May referred.

It does seem likely that some form of environmental support will remain, but how well will this be funded? The UK was the market leader in agri-environment schemes but has recently had to take a step backwards as the rest of the EU tried to catch up. There is now a real opportunity for the UK to create targeted schemes which will really benefit the environment.

  1. Regulation

Some say that our departure from the EU will allow for a “bonfire of red tape”. I say that this bonfire is akin to the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. The easy option will be to transcribe all EU environmental & animal welfare regulation into UK law. Hopefully we will see a reduction in the complex rules surrounding any funding schemes, but I foresee few other regulatory benefits.

  1. Trade

Unfettered trade with the EU will be crucial for farmers in the North East, particularly for those in the lamb trade. In theory, this should be easy to achieve as we import roughly two and a half times more food from the EU than we export. However, will politics get in the way of common sense?

A further risk is that unfettered access to our agricultural markets could be bargained away while negotiating headline grabbing free trade agreements with non-EU nations. Could our market be flooded with Australian lamb and Brazilian beef?

In short, I see the immediate post-Brexit scenario being “less of the same” in terms of funding, “much the same” in terms of regulation and “anybody’s guess” in terms of international trade.

Hopefully, once the dust has settled, UK agricultural policy and the associated regulatory regime will be able to evolve in line with a beneficial international trading environment in order to deliver real benefits to the rural economy and the wider environment. Or is that just wishful thinking?

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Rural Rented Property

You may have noticed that the Government recently published its White Paper aiming to solve the “UK’s broken housing market”. Within it there were many fine words, some of which made very encouraging noises about the need for rented housing in rural areas and the need for provision by local authorities and the private sector.

That must sound encouraging to those of you who have provided such properties for many years due to the property-rich nature of most Northumbrian farms. However, as so often, while one part of Government plays sweet music, another is busy putting the boot in. While there are many ways in which government, both central and local, preys upon the good nature of rural housing landlords, possibly the most pressing is the issue of Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs).

This regulation was introduced back in 2004, coming into effect in 2007 when EPCs became mandatory when residential property was either let or sold. The EPC process grades the property from A to G, with A being the most energy efficient. This was rather a nuisance for owners, and not of great interest to most tenants or purchasers, but the regulations are soon going to bite. From the 1st April 2018 it will become illegal to let a property with an EPC rating of less than E. From 1st April 2020, this will apply to all existing tenancies. So time is running out to commission an EPC and undertake any recommended work.

There are some exemptions from the EPC requirements, such as Listed buildings and places of worship, but generally expenditure will be required to ensure that traditionally constructed cottages make grade E.

Ownership, or an interest in the ownership, of a let farm cottage may have another nasty surprise due to the imposition of an additional 3% Stamp Duty Land Tax on the purchase of a “second home”. This may not be an issue for the farmer residing in the farmhouse, but it may have implications if the farm is in joint ownership, such as a partnership.

It is possible that a partner, perhaps the son or daughter, may seek to purchase their first main residence outside of the farm partnership. If the farm contains let residential properties, it is likely that it will be held that the partner has a material interest in residential property and thus the new purchase will count as a “second home” and attract an additional 3% SDLT. How does that sound for helping rural families get on the housing ladder?

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Post Brexit referendum farm buiness tenancies notice periods

Finally, after nearly 7 months, Mrs May has set out her approach to Brexit negotiations and the Supreme Court has cleared the legal fog on constitutional issues. The way now seems clear for the Government to push through the necessary Act of Parliament so allowing the signing of Article 50 in March, thus triggering the 2 years of negotiation leading to the UK leaving the EU in March 2019.

It would seem highly unlikely that direct subsidy payments to farmers will last long once exposed to the UK media and scrutiny at Westminster, where such payments enjoy minimal support. A crumb of comfort was provided by Mrs May when she talked of avoiding economic cliff edges by providing transitional payments. Let’s hope that this is applied to agricultural support, but for how long?

She also stated that she plans for the UK to leave the single market in order to control immigration. Unless there is a free trade agreement in place at the point of exit, which seems unlikely, UK agricultural exports to the EU (our biggest market) could be severely disrupted. The export of agricultural commodities could then fall under World Trade Organisation rules, which would involve significant tariffs, which would be bound to impact farm gate prices.

With that cheery outlook, flexibility would seem the key for all participants in Farm Business Tenancies (FBTs). Luckily, the legislation allows for considerable flexibility in FBT agreements. However, it must always be remembered that such flexibility does not exist when it comes to notice periods. Failure to comply with statutory obligations on notice periods could be an expensive mistake for landlords or tenants (or the relevant Agent!).

FBTs that run from year-to-year can only be terminated by giving written notice at least 12 months before the term date, with termination on the term end date. Life is sort of simpler with FBTs of 2 years or less as no notice is required and they expire at the agreed term date. However, if the tenant is treated as a tenant after this term date (ie rent accepted) a new licence or tenancy could be created and life could get complicated.

FBTs that run for more than 2 years will roll on from the term date unless the landlord or tenant gives at least 12 months’ notice in writing ending on the term end date. In the absence of effective notice the FBT will automatically convert to a periodic FBT normally a year-to-year tenancy. In effect, this can extend the FBT significantly. As there is now no maximum length of notice, it may be advisable to serve the notice at the commencement of the FBT.

Given the uncertainty for agriculture post 2019, it would seem sensible to include the opportunity to break the fixed term. For FBTs of less than 2 years, the break clause can provide for a notice period of any length. For longer FBTs, at least 12 months’ notice must be given but it can end on any date and not just a term date.

In summary, the flexibility of FBTs should allow both parties to ride out the uncertainties ahead, but do be mindful of the notice requirements to ensure that the agreements operate as intended. As ever if in doubt take advice especially if getting your land back or getting out is time critical!

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Article in Hexham Courant – December 2016

Well, that is 2016 nearly done and dusted and what a surprising year it has been. The dreadful wet winter seemed to go on for ever, benefiting neither crops nor stock. Fortunately, this eventually gave way to a moderate spring and summer, and a gloriously dry and open back end, without the droughting that affected some areas. But strangely, the politics was more interesting than the weather.

Never have I witnessed such an intense debate as that which surrounded the Brexit referendum. It seemed to invade every aspect of life, with the battle for our hearts and minds raging across the media. Whichever way you voted, the over whelming sensation on the 24th June seemed to be one of shock. “Have we really liberated ourselves from the tyranny of Brussels bureaucracy?” or “Have we really voted for the economic suicide of leaving the CAP and the free market?” depending on your point of view.

Six months on, it is disappointing that we know nothing more about the timescale for leaving, the future trading relationship with Europe nor the possible size and structure of a future UK agriculture support system. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is getting on with debating the next CAP. At the current rate of Brexit progress, perhaps we should be paying more attention to that debate!

There is one certainty for 2017: Donald Trump will become President of the United States of America (unless it turns out that they can’t count or somebody slots him first!) Will this tidal wave of populism wash away the political elite of Europe in the upcoming elections, contributing further uncertainty across the channel?

What can we do in such uncertain times? “Not a lot” is the easy answer. But there are a few simple steps that we can take to ensure that we are best placed to face whatever is coming our way. A review of the paperwork is a good place to start.

If you are considering entering into any farming agreement longer than a year, is it flexible enough to allow both parties to adapt to one or more changes to agricultural policy and support systems? If you don’t know what is in your Partnership Agreement, how can you be sure that it is the most suitable agreement for the changes to come? Please don’t tell me that you haven’t got a written agreement!?

Then how about your Will? When was the last time that you looked at that? That is something simple that we all think about doing, but many of us don’t quite get round to, merely patting ourselves on the back for the fact that we have a Will in place. But does it still reflect our current wishes, take into account current business structures, Inheritance Tax rules and family circumstances? Without regular reviews, you could find that your greatest Christmas gift next year is to the Tax Man!

So in 2016 we said goodbye to a Prime Minister and in 2017 we will say hello to President Trump. Whatever else 2017 does bring, I hope that you can all make the most of it. Have a very Happy Christmas and a great New Year.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Crash bang wallop the shooting season is here again

For the fortunate, the shooting season is well underway. For many of us, the coming of October heralds the prospect of addressing the partridges and happy days to come on the pheasants.

What will this season bring? I would guess that sometime, somewhere, it will bring a repeat of incidents that we have seen in previous seasons: over turned beaters’ trailers, rolled quads, blown barrels, vehicular crashes of varying severity, broken limbs and cardiac arrest.

Are you ready? Have you revisited your Health & Safety Policy and Risk Assessment for the 2016/17 season? Vehicles and trailers should be insured, maintained and fit for purpose. The Health and Safety Executive has produced a very useful information sheet covering the transportation of people in farm trailers (AIS no36). A recent court case highlighted the need to use seat belts when using ATV type vehicles where they are fitted.

It is a legal requirement that all operations that employ five or more people, this includes part time employees such as beaters, have a written H&S Policy and Risk Assessment in place, but all employers are legally obliged to carry out an assessment I would strongly recommend that all shoots go through the process and keep the documents up to date. Any necessary agreements with the Landowner should also be in place and documented.

One particular area to consider is communications. It is likely that all key personnel will have mobile phones, but do they actually work across the shoot terrain? They can be worse than useless, so other systems should be considered. Can the Emergency Services locate the site and where could a helicopter land? If all eventualities have been considered, risks can be minimised and incidents can be managed efficiently.

Putting the documents together in the first instance does seem like a chore, but there are plenty of templates available to help you. You will probably find that much of the process is similar to what you actually do when planning a shoot day. The difference being that the process is formally recorded and signed off by the key personnel. Once in place, it is a simple task to review and update on an annual basis.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Farming agreements post EU Referendum

Now that over two months has passed since the EU Referendum, we are a little bit clearer on the immediate future of agricultural support schemes.

In the middle of August, the Chancellor announced that direct, Pillar 1, funding would remain in place through to the end of the current CAP programme in 2020. The future of Pillar 2 is rathermore vague, with the only guarantee being to honour those agreements agreed prior to the Autumn Statement, which normally takes place at the end of November.

Subsequent information suggests that, should we leave the EU prior to 2020, a transitional scheme would be put in place until a new policy kicks in post 2020. This would be based along the lines of the current Basic Payment Scheme.

If we do actually leave the EU, it seems likely that April 2019 will be the due date. Currently, there seems to be no rush to sign Article 50, so triggering the 2 year exit timescale. Leaving at the end of a financial year, and before the EU parliamentary elections of May 2019, would seem sensible.

This means that any farming agreement in excess of two years may span 2 or 3 different farm support schemes. The first we know about, the second should be along similar lines, but the third is a total unknown. That does create some additional considerations for Farm Business Tenancies and other farming agreements.

The landowner will want to ensure that the farmer does actually take up all relevant entitlements as the schemes evolve. The landowner also needs to ensure that all future entitlements, credits, quotas or whatever they may be, remain with the land and not traded away by the farmer.

The farmer in the agreement, whether tenant, share or contract farmer, may wish to ensure that there are reviews built into the agreement so adjustments, or even termination, can be made if new support programmes are radically different. Both parties may wish to include flexibility so that they can both take advantage of any new approach, and not be locked into outdated thinking.

In this uncertain period, it is impossible to try and second guess policy makers, but it is essential that due consideration is given to the possibility of life outside the EU. When formulating any new farming agreements, legal provision must be made to limit the downside and maximise the opportunities for both parties.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

O paperwork, paperwork, wherefore art thou, paperwork?

One of the stock phrases of the legal profession is “There is only one thing worse than paperwork, and that is no paperwork!” This came to mind the other day when I was reading the national coverage of an unfortunate family dispute that was being played out in the High Court.

The dispute was centred on a farming business on the south coast of England, near Chichester. The business was controlled by the Father, but the Son claims to have been the backbone of the business for more than 20 years, and was instrumental in helping to diversify the farm business into property during the 1990s.

The son lives in a “cottage” on the farm, which is now valued at £2.25m (different world down there!). He has lived there since his marriage in 1996. Confident that it effectively belonged to him, he did not buy a property of his own and was happy to spend something like £700,000 on renovating and improving the property. He viewed it as fair recompense as he worked for the family business for little or no remuneration.

Recently, he had fallen out with his Father over matters of business, and had tried to confirm his stake in the property. His Father denied that he had ever gifted the property and was just kind enough to let them live there. He claims that his Son is now trying to asset strip the estate.

A sorry state of affairs, and one that won’t make for happy family parties in the future. It could so easily have been avoided with clarification at the outset in the form of a lease or Deed of Transfer. Another opportunity arose for conversation and clarification when the Son was planning the renovations, but seemed happy to spend a large sum of money on an assumption.

Apparently, this dispute is part of a wider family dispute involving businesses, Trusts and properties. I can’t help but think that this will be fuelled by lack of paperwork covering items such as partnerships and company ownership. I would also strongly suspect that there has been a distinct lack of proper succession planning, which would have clarified these issues through an early conversation.

It is frustrating that us lawyers have to go on so much about sorting the family paperwork, be it wills, partnership agreements, Trusts or Power of Lasting Attorney, but it is hardly surprising when such cases appear in the national media.

Could the next case I read about feature you and your family? I do hope not.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

Lasting power of attorney

The other day, a friend of mine went to see his Mother. Being a typically dutiful son, he had not seen her for a few weeks, so was feeling rather sheepish, but was not prepared for his welcome. When she opened the door, his Mother looked at him blankly, as if he was a total stranger. It was only when he said “Hello Mum” that recognition kicked in. It made him wonder if Father Time was taking his toll. It made me think of a Lasting Power of Attorney.

A Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) may sound like an American mini-series, but it is a very useful document that people should really have in place alongside their Will. There are two types of LPA: for financial decisions and also for health and care decisions.

The former can be exercised while you still have mental capacity. The appointed Attorney is empowered to make financial decisions on your behalf. The Attorney can pay bills, buy and sell property, arrange property repairs, run a business and make investments.

A health and care LPA can only be exercised once you have lost mental capacity. The Attorney can make major decisions, such as where you live, what you eat, who you see, what treatment you should receive and what activities you should take part in.

The LPA can be tailored to suit your wishes, so certain areas of activity can be specifically included or excluded. Clearly, the Attorney should be somebody that you trust explicitly. Even better, it should be two people that you trust explicitly. Sadly, there are plenty of occasions when the halo of trust slips with sad consequences. This is less likely when there are two people involved. One could be a professional adviser put in place to oversee the activities of the main Attorney.

The LPA will only be valid if you have the mental capacity to set it up and have not been put under any pressure to create it. It must be countersigned to this effect by a trusted third party and registered with the Office of the Public Guardian.

I would recommend that everybody has an LPA in place as mental capacity can be suddenly diminished by a serious accident or illness. However, it is especially important for the more senior members of society as our bodies seem to be increasingly outlasting our minds. As the mental powers diminish, attempting to deal with financial issues can cause frustration and confusion, sometimes leading to some awful outcomes. An LPA provides a little bit of peace of mind for everybody concerned.

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.