High Sheriff of Kent Michael Bax 'fell off chair' when offered role

Land agent Michael Bax has begun his year as High Sheriff of Kent. He spoke exclusively to Trevor Sturgess about the prestigious role, changes in farming, and the challenges for rural businesses.

It was not as though Michael Bax, a busy Kent doyen among land agents, needed another job. But when the successful businessman and chartered surveyor was invited to become High Sheriff of Kent, it was not something he felt he should turn down.

“I felt I needed the job like a hole in the head but at the same time, I knew I would do it because I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t do it,” he says.

He admits he “fell off my chair” when the phone call came from Richard Oldfield, a former High Sheriff and now Vice-Lord Lieutenant of Kent.

Chartered surveyor Mike Bax, pictured with his wife Jane, has been appointed High Sheriff of Kent
Chartered surveyor Mike Bax, pictured with his wife Jane, has been appointed High Sheriff of Kent

This year, Mr Bax was installed as the Queen’s judicial representative in the county. “Your principal responsibility is to the criminal justice system and the people who work in maintaining law and order, to the High Court judges when they come to Kent on circuit.” One is held in Maidstone every year, with four or five elsewhere.

The office dates back to the reign of King Canute in about 1000. The High Sheriff collected revenue for the king, mainly from farmers. High Sheriffs were unpopular yet extremely wealthy. Now the role does not cost the taxpayer, so, as Mr Bax admits, the candidate needs “reasonable resources.”

The Bax family cannot trace their line quite as far back as the High Sheriff’s but they are no johnny-come-latelys, with records showing the Bax name – possibly Norman or Flemish – around from the late 1300s as yeoman farmers and blacksmiths.

Entrepreneur Alexander Bax was a brewer in Faversham in the 1680s and his daughter married into the Shepherd family, later Shepherd Neame.

Michael Bax attended Kings School, Canterbury, and had been expected to go into the Royal Navy as many of his forebears had done. His father Christopher Bax commanded a destroyer, and his grandfather was Admiral Robert Bax.

Michael preferred the land to the sea and decided to become a farmer. But advised there was more money in land agency because he could manage dozens of farms rather than just one, he changed tack. “If you’re any good, you will be boss of your own business and in a far better job than farming,” he was told. “That was good advice,” he says now.

He trained as a surveyor and went on to join Prall Champion and Prall, a Dartford-based agent. He set up the Sevenoaks branch at the age of 25 and was later involved in the merger with Porter & Cobb.

Land agents manage estates, deal with tenants, farm buildings, act for tenant farmers, and negotiate rents that reflect the fortunes of their businesses.

After a number of business ventures, Mr Bax was joined by Richard Thomas and Tom French to form the BTF Partnership that now operates from a converted barn in Challock.

“i felt i needed the job like a hole in the head but at the same time, i knew i would do it because i knew i would regret it forever if i didn’t do it…” – michael bax

He has seen farming go through many phases. He recalls many more people employed in the sector when he was starting his career.

Many jobs have gone, along with small farmers who have given way to larger enterprises. Prices have fluctuated but Mr Bax says now is good time to be in farming. Higher prices – except perhaps in dairy – and the move towards local sourcing and food security have improved the outlook for farmers.

“Farming is good business to be in but it will suffer from volatility. It will continue to have its bad years and because farming is now so capital intensive, there will be more of those bad years than historically.”

Mr Bax is a fierce critic of restrictive planning laws and bureaucratic council planning departments. He says Nimbys are “a frightful nuisance but you can’t blame anyone for being a Nimby. He fears “localism” will make the situation even more difficult for rural business. “A big issue is accessibility of rural businesses.

“There are problems with access and over-use of country lanes by big commercial vehicles.”

He has seen a trend towards hiring foreign workers and regrets that “we haven’t got a way of involving our youngsters in working on the land.”

Michael Bax played a key role in setting up the concept of Kent Rural Plc and will present its latest annual report at the County Show next month.

“We hope it will be the best in-depth study of value ad money invested and going through Kent.”

He believes more people should invest in farming businesses. “If we were a FTSE-100 company, it would be way into the top 100. Kent Rural Plc is right up there with the top companies in Europe.”

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