When Richard Falle paid £200 in 1987 for the title of Seigneur of the Fief de la Fosse, the islanders of Jersey would not have begrudged the well-known local lawyer his medieval right to the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shores of his plot of land. But they are horrified now at his claim that the title also gives him control of vast areas of valuable waterfront since reclaimed from the sea.
Today Mr Falle may see it earn his company £10m if Jersey's parliament agrees to settle a bitter legal dispute that has provoked fury among islanders who see their quaint customs being hijacked by corporate interests.
If Mr Falle wins in the courts, his company, Les Pas Holdings, could take control of a lucrative estate now comprising a leisure complex, a new marina and flats with picturesque views over the island's Elizabeth Castle and out to sea.
In return for relinquishing that claim, he is asking for another prime waterfront site, tax breaks and planning permission for 100 luxury flats.
Islanders have launched pickets, petitions and a boycott of pubs and supermarkets to try to stop the settlement, which is being debated in secret today in the island's parliament, the States.
Protesters say their government is being held to ransom by the unholy alliance of a greedy lawyer and an arrogant conglomerate. CI Traders, which owns the island's brewery, many of its pubs and most of its supermarkets, has a 12.5 per cent stake in Les Pas and is bearing the brunt of the political pressure.
Almost 8,000 people signed a petition, organised by 77-year old former politician Dick Shenton, urging the Queen to intervene. His petition says: "We are all aware of how times have changed and how materialism has eroded some of our historic and illustrious heritage, but there comes a time when one must make a stand for what is considered to be in the present public interest."
The feudal system of seigneurs and fiefs developed in Norman times after 933, when the Duke of Normandy granted lands in the island to his favoured subjects. The feudal powers of the seigneur, including the right to settle disputes and to demand labour from his tenants, have largely gone, but the titles remain.
After years of arguing that Advocate Falle's claims are nonsense, the most senior of the island's governing committees agreed the out-of-court settlement earlier this year. The committee, chaired by Frank Walker, the nearest the island has to a "prime minister, decided that while the risk of losing may be small, the scale of the potential loss is too large. The island has been reclaiming land since the Sixties and many important buildings, including power and gas stations, now stand on reclamation sites.
Les Pas was created in 1987 with a plan to reclaim land south of Jersey's capital, St Helier, for a leisure village and marina, but the plan was blocked by the States. It says the £200 spent on the feudal rights was dwarfed by the money it spent planning the project.
Advocate Falle says he had been vilified at public meetings on the island and is considering suing some of the campaigners for defamation. "I know people are saying it is revenge or greed, but the nature of the action is simply asking the States to show a title to the land or to quit the land."
The reaction to the proposed out-of-court deal has been furious because of accusations of conflicts of interest and chumminess in the business elite. Several members of Senator Walker's committee are CI Traders shareholders and he has faced personal criticism. Anti-Les Pas campaigners hope public fury will tip the States into rejecting or delaying the out-of-court deal, bolstered by the no votes in the newspaper and local television phone polls.
But Jersey is an island dominated by the finance industry, where money talks and realpolitik usually triumphs, so Senator Walker is confident of a rubber stamp.
"I can well understand the anger over apparently being held to ransom, and the morality of the situation is seriously questionable, of that there is no doubt," he said. "If I was a member of the public looking at the information available to them, I would be one of those voting against, but members of the States are more clearly aware of the legal issues and the potential downside."
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