As a civil servant, I often had occasion to show foreign visitors round Parliament. Usually the most difficult part was explaining why (in those days) the House of Lords consisted mainly of people who were there because of something their ancestors had done – sometimes centuries ago and including acts which are not fit to be described in a family newspaper. Europeans in particular could not understand a hereditary upper house: to be honest, they were genuinely astonished by it in a modern democracy.
The Duke of Cornwall’s ownership of his land is much older than most lines to the House of Lords – indeed, the Duchy estate was created in 1337 by Edward III for his son and heir, Prince Edward (later known as The Black Prince), who became the first Duke of Cornwall: and nearly half of the land the Duchy owns is in Devon.
Most of Salcombe Harbour’s seabed (or fundus) below the low water mark is owned by the Duchy and the Harbour pays an annual rent of around £70kpa to be able to use it. The Duchy can decide not to lease the fundus to the Harbour Authority and instead choose to run the harbour itself. It has done this partially in Dartmouth, where the marinas are leased directly from the Duchy so generate little or no revenue for the Harbour Board; and it did similarly recently in Salcombe Harbour, where it agreed to a direct lease for Lincombe boatyard, so that the Harbour Board lost about £5k pa of mooring charges.
All this means that, in managing the harbour, the Harbour Board has to take into account a feudal settlement nearly 700 years old. The Duchy’s lease entails a direct charge for use of the fundus, like moorings: if the Board increases mooring fees, more money goes to the Duchy; whilst if the Board increases charges (like harbour dues) for using the water above the fundus, all that money is retained by the Board. But the Duchy does not own all the harbour and the bits which are in other private hands are very valuable. Although the Harbour Board has voluntarily restricted itself to a certain number of moorings, the Board cannot prevent private owners putting as many moorings as they like on their fundus, consistent with navigational safety. And, as Winters now has an agreement direct with the Duchy, they were able to increase their number of pontoon berths without needing the Harbour Board’s consent.
And I think I would baffle a Frenchman by trying to explain why a local authority should have to pay rent to the Royal Family or why the poorest parts of England make such a large contribution towards running the monarchy: but that is for another day.