The new barons

THE little people in the North-east are up in arms. Two directors of their football club, Newcastle United, have been tape-recorded by a tabloid newspaper calling local women "dogs", mocking supporters paying pounds 50 for replica club strips that cost a few pounds to manufacture and ridiculing their star player, Alan Shearer.

If this is all reminiscent of a bygone age, when barons ruled the land, when serfs were treated with contempt by their local chieftain, then it should be. Britain in the past few years has been overtaken by a new feudalism - of which the most extreme example, in terms of bad behaviour, is the good-time boys at Newcastle, Douglas Hall and Freddie Shepherd.

They owe their lifestyle to the success and patronage of one of the most prominent of the regional barons, Sir John Hall, former Newcastle United chairman and Douglas's father. The son of a miner, Sir John has supplanted, literally, the former landed class in his community. Sir John, responsible for revitalising the North-east, first through building the huge Metro shopping centre, then by transforming Newcastle United, lives in the Palladian glory of Wynyard Hall, once home to the Marquess of Londonderry.

In Birmingham, the Richardson twins, Don and Roy, were born near the Dudley steelworks on the Earl of Dudley's land. Today, the steelworks has been replaced by the giant Merry Hill shopping centre, built by the Richardsons. They are worth an estimated pounds 110m, earning them the local nickname, "The new Earls of Dudley".

In Yorkshire, Paul Sykes, another son of a miner, lives in Studley Royal House, near Fountains Abbey. When the noise from a Civil War re-enactment in the grounds of the abbey disturbed his Bank Holiday weekend, Sykes offered to buy the whole of Fountains Abbey from its owner, the National Trust. He could afford to: Sykes has amassed a pounds 250m fortune, mainly from building the Meadowhall shopping centre, again on disused industrial land, in Sheffield.

Mainly - but not exclusively - in keeping with fellow members of the new baronage, Sykes has his fingers in many pies, all of them local, all of them employing local people and driving the local economy. As well as Meadowhall, he has other property developments across the region and runs Planet Online, Britain's biggest commercial Internet provider and a supplier of computer hardware to banks and building societies. Typical of his kind - despite his considerable success - Sykes has remained loyal to his roots, never once tempted to move away or to relocate his head office in London.

In fact, as a breed these new lords tend to despise London, preferring to stay at home, to raise money locally, to deal with people they know, rather than with the alien accents of the City. The stock market is something they view with suspicion. They may raise money that way, but it is often as a last resort. They prefer to stick with the regional office of the merchant bank or auditor. They are used to calling a spade a spade, often in broad tones - not always an attribute appreciated in London boardrooms.

The new regional barons are not motivated purely by profit. They believe in giving something back. In their case, though, their chosen vehicle is not the monuments or follies so beloved of their aristocratic forebears, but frequently the talisman of ordinary people - sport.

Partly as a sop to their working-class origins, partly because football can bring with it glamour, and partly because people ask, even expect them to, they often end up rescuing the local club. It is easy to be cynical, to put their generosity down as another form of exploitative investment, but there are easier ways to make money than funding soccer or rugby. When Wigan wanted a new stadium, Dave Whelan, known in the North-west as Mr Wigan, sold pounds 17m of shares in his JJB Sports retail empire to finance the development - something he did not need to do. In Cardiff, Peter Thomas could not bear to see the once-proud rugby club for which he had played fall on hard times, so he became its main benefactor.

Once it was the church, but these days, soccer or rugby is the community's linchpin. The barons' involvement in their towns' focal pastime reinforces their position as the pivotal figure in the area, more powerful than the mayor, more important than the