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elected Head of the Round Table or Rotary - traditional backbones of the small business sector.

That pre-eminence is also enhanced by their involvement on regional official bodies, usually quangos designed to attract inward investment. While nobody doubts their qualifications or willingness to serve, it is here, sometimes, that their power and reach can have a downside. Usually the richest person for miles around, they have branched out, in many cases into property and other interests. Such is their range, almost everything that is of a commercial nature in some way impinges upon them. If someone wants to open a new retail park, chances are the local baron will have to be consulted.

They might own the land on which the new centre is to be built, or have an alternative plot available, they might sit on the body which determines if it can go ahead, or have the cash to back the project.

In this sense, as facilitators, they can be a good thing: people who can make it happen, whose reach means those in high places must sit up and listen. But their strength can also be their weakness. Their "fix- it" role is often only on their terms. Hall, for example, secured a new Samsung plant for the North-east - on his own land.

Such is their power that often nothing major can be built without their say-so, without them having a share. The community always seems to come a poor third after themselves and their families. For them, being a big fish in a little pool has its attractions; for us, such a stranglehold is not always healthy.

In that sense, they are little different from the aristocrats of old. So, here they are: Britain's leading regional barons. In compiling this list, we spoke to experts on wealth, local newspaper editors and representatives from official bodies, including DTI regional councils and chambers of commerce.

It is not, though, by any means an official list. If some areas are missing, it is because they lack an obvious dominant personality. One - Liverpool - has two. And there is a clear gap, for example, in East Anglia, where Cambridge has the fastest-growing local economy in the country. Perhaps next time.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in 'Management Today'.

Anne McElvoy, page 5, this section