POLICE are calling for earlier closing times for a Bexhill bar over concerns of “disorder, assaults and ongoing drug use”.

On Friday, a panel of Rother District councillors are to consider an application from Sussex Police to review the licence of The Devonshire Bar and Lounge in Devonshire Square.

The bar is currently closed, having been voluntarily shut down by its owner ahead of the licensing hearing.

In the application, a Sussex Police representative said: “This application is submitted following concerns over continued disorder, assaults and ongoing drug use within the premises. 

“Sussex Police licensing have conducted a stepped approach over the past few years and on several occasions have raised concerns around the management of the premises to both the Designated Premises Supervisor (DPS) and also the premises licence holder, Gino Forte.

“This has seen no sustained improvements in the levels of drug use at the premises and following several recent incidents of assaults, we believe there is no other proportionate course of action other than a review of the premises licence.”

In its application, Sussex Police is calling for earlier closing hours, new management and a temporary closure of the bar to introduce these changes. 

However, the bar has already been closed since early October (prior to lockdown) and its DPS, a Mr Sokol Kapllani, has already been removed from his post by the licence holder, Mr Forte.

In correspondence with Sussex Police, a representative of Mr Forte confirmed the bar is to remain closed until at least March and will undergo a £100,000 refurbishment and rebranding in the meantime. 

The refurbishment will include the installation of a new and beefed-up CCTV system. The bar will also appoint new door staff and adopt new training and anti-drug policies.

According to Sussex Police, issues with the bar have been ongoing for some time, with the application including a long list of incidents dating back to January 2018. 

During many of the police visits, officers took drug swabs at the premises. While readings have varied over time, police say, the results showed high levels of cocaine use on a number of occasions.

On more than one occasion – in January 2018 and November 2019 –  some areas of the premises also showed evidence of heroin use as well, although this may have been due to cross-contamination, police say. 

The most recent swabs were taken on September 16 2020, which showed high levels of cocaine in two areas (a games machine and a baby changing table) as well as lower levels of cocaine in other areas.

Police say these readings were of particular concern as they were taken midweek and “there was presumed to be enhanced cleaning of high touch point areas in the pub to ensure they were minimising the spread of Covid-19.”

Police say they have recorded 51 incidents connected to the premises since January 1 2019, including both violent crime and sexual offences.  In the same period, police received 110 calls relating to the Devonshire Bar and Lounge. 

Inspector Olivia Carroll, Sussex Police licensing lead in East Sussex, said: “The latest report is from the hours of Sunday September 13 2020, when officers were called to the pub to reports of numerous people fighting, which was captured and reported by our CCTV control room.  

“Officers spent 45 minutes at the scene dealing with the incident and remaining in the area to ensure that there were no further issues.

“This does not account for the time officers will have spent dealing with the paperwork for the incident or any ongoing enquiries to progress the investigation.”

Other notable incidents in the past year include a man being glassed by his wife during a drunken argument in February and a fight involving around 12 to 15 people in July.

There were also several reports of victims being bottled or glassed outside of the premises since 2018. This is despite licensing conditions preventing the sale of drinks in glass for outside consumption

Insp Carroll said high levels of intoxication was a common theme in the majority of the incidents. 

There are also allegations that coronavirus regulations had not been enforced by the bar’s management on a number of occasions.

Insp Carroll said: “As licensing lead for East Sussex, I would always prefer for premises licence holders and designated premises supervisors to work with us to identify any areas where they feel they are not adhering to the licensing objectives and we will always look to support them in partnership to overcome issues identified. 

“However I am confident in saying that the DPS of the Devonshire Bar and Lounge has had numerous opportunities to improve the situation around his licenced premises and even with the support of local licensing officers, advice given to him and previous stepped approaches he has been unable to make sufficient improvements which satisfy achieving the licensing objectives. 

“Therefore the only option which is proportionate and necessary is to seek a review of the licence altogether.”

Sussex Police have called for Mr Kapllani to be removed as DPS and, together with his brother who also acts a bar manager, to be banned from entering the premises during operating hours. 

They also called for the premises to be closed for at least eight weeks to underline the change of management. Both these steps have already been taken by Mr Forte.

Among other new conditions, police are also seeking earlier closing times, reducing opening hours from midnight to 11pm Monday to Thursday and from 2am to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

A decision on the next steps for the bar is expected to be made following the licensing hearing on Friday, November 13.