A Somerset hotel has been accused by police of illegally selling alcohol and housing Bulgarian nationals without the proper paperwork.

The Laburnum House Hotel lies on Sloway Lane in the village of West Huntspill, halfway between Bridgwater and Highbridge, and is managed by Steven Cox.

Officers from Avon and Somerset Constabulary visited the property in November 2023, recording breaches of its existing licence and alleging possible illegal activities being perpetrated on site.

Steven Cox applied to vary the existing licence to the property, with Somerset Council’s licensing sub-committee north meeting in Bridgwater on Monday morning (March 18) to settle the matter.

But at the eleventh hour – literally 11pm the previous day – Mr Cox withdrew this request, leaving councillors to request Mr Cox and the police “try and reach an amicable resolution to the matter” outside of a public forum.

In statements published before the hearing, officers from the police’s licensing team claimed that the hotel premises had not been used as a hotel for the last three years, being instead used as a house of multiple occupation (HMO) for Bulgarian nationals.

Nicola Cooper, the police’s alcohol licence officer, said that Mr Cox did not have the correct licence to run the premises as a HMO.

She said issues with the property had first been flagged by neighbourhood sergeant Danielle Hardaway following reports that alcohol was being sold from a shop within the site.

Ms Cooper attend the site on November 14, 2023 and met with Mr Cox, who denied the existence of any such shop.

She also spoke to Reece Willows, who runs Escape Rooms Middlemoor within one of the buildings on site, who said he had been advised he could sell alcohol to his customers and “sometimes gave it away as part of the admission fee” – something which the existing hotel premises licence did not allow.

Ms Cooper described Mr Cox’s behaviour during this visit as “unprofessional, rude, sarcastic and intimidating towards me”, adding that he had “no regard for the law or his responsibilities”.

During the same visit, she found a gambling machine installed in the reception area, which was not covered by the existing licence, putting Mr Cox in breach of the Gambling Act 2005.

She also stated Mr Cox had relayed information about “disorder” on the premises, children being left unattended and “gangmasters” visiting the site, claiming he had called the police seven times in the last 12 months.

She said: “We have not received any variations to this licence since 2005.

“I understand there are 61 lodges and some additional unlicensed caravans on site.

“The hotel within the licensed area has been unused for some time and it was unfurnished during my visit and appeared derelict.”

Police constable Tracey Jones conducted a further visit on January 22, 2024, reporting that alcohol was still being sold in the unlicensed areas – including “ten bottles of red wind selling for £10 per bottle”.

When she confronted one of the residents, he “poured it down a drain” in front of her.

Ms Cooper had a phone conversation with Mr Cox on February 21, 2024, regarding the reports of unauthorised sale of alcohol on his premises.

Mr Cox said he had signed a seven-year lease allowing workers at the Hinkley Point C construction site to occupy the premises, but did not currently have planning permission to change the official use of the hotel.

Ms Cooper said that Mr Cox became “verbally aggressive” towards her, calling her a “jobsworth” and telling her “he paid my wages”.

He also accused her of “having a personal vendetta” against him, and told her to email any further correspondence to him, claiming that “the Bulgarians steal the post”.

Under the Licensing Act 2003, the maximum penalty for selling alcohol without the correct licence is an unlimited fine and/ or six months in prison.

Ms Cooper said she would not accept any attempt to vary the hotel’s existing licence until Mr Cox had been shown to be “fully compliant” with all existing licensing laws, along with UK fire regulations.

She said: “We strongly advise you to cease any alcohol sale and remove all alcohol from the premises.

“You must cease use of gaming machines outside of licensed areas.

“A record of these breaches will be kept on the premises licensing file and may be cited in any future proceedings.”

In email correspondence published before the hearing, Mr Cox said he was “staggered” by Ms Cooper’s “lack of interest in getting things right”.

He added: “A few bottles of wine would never get sold to our current clientèle in a month of Sundays – they are not red wine drinkers!

“Tracey will confirm whiskey, maybe vodka, but red wine at £10? No chance!

“Laburnum has been a successful hotel with alcohol sales for nearly 40 years and we hope to return to those days – we just need help.”

Mr Cox had applied to vary the existing licence, making himself the designated premises supervisor in place of his elderly father, David.

The council’s licensing sub-committee met in Bridgwater on Monday morning (March 18) expecting to settle the issue – only to be told by Alan Weldon, the council’s licensing and fraud manager, that the application had been withdrawn at 11pm the previous evening (March 17).

He said: “Mr Cox has withdrawn his application, and his email explaining the reasons for the withdrawal has been circulated to the panel.”

Councillor Hugh Davies, who chaired the hearing, said: “Given the withdrawal of the application, there is no need for the relevant submissions of the parties to be considered today.

“We hope the police and Mr Cox will now now take the opportunity to go away  and try and reach an amicable resolution to this matter.”