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Nestling in the heart of a quaint market town, the White Horse boasted a 600-year history as a coaching inn of local renown.
But its highly-prized reputation nosedived when National Crime Agency-appointed (NCA) managers began running the hotel and served up a Fawlty Towers-style fiasco.
The crime-fighting authority – dubbed ‘Britain’s FBI’ – was handed the business in Romsey, Hampshire, in 2019 as part of a claimed £6million settlement following an eight-year investigation into a money laundering network.
Dame Lynne Owens, then director-general of the NCA and a candidate for the new Scotland Yard commissioner, heralded the victory on the airwaves and social media, claiming ‘Millions in property & goods recovered including a hotel & Bentley’.
Its highly-prized reputation nosedived when National Crime Agency-appointed (NCA) managers began running the hotel and served up a Fawlty Towers-style fiasco
At the same time she called on the Government to hand over hundreds of millions in extra funding for the agency.
Rather than sell the venue, however, NCA bosses kept the hotel for more than two years despite having ‘no ability to run’ the business.
In that short time, according to politicians, former guests and locals, they ruined the 29-bed hotel’s considerable reputation and cost the taxpayer millions of pounds.
Local Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, who wrote repeatedly to the NCA over her concerns at its stewardship, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It has been very upsetting to see the White Horse go through such challenges.
‘What was once a popular business in the heart of the town has not thrived under the auspices of the NCA, and it is clear the taxpayer has not got value for money either.
‘There never seems to have been a decent plan of what to do with an asset the state ended up with but had no ability to run.’
The White Horse, originally a guesthouse for nearby Romsey Abbey, is one of just a handful of hospitality venues dating back to the 14th century. Before the NCA takeover, it had a four-star rating and two AA rosettes for its restaurant.
The NCA originally estimated it could earn up to £5 million from a sale, but by the time the White Horse was eventually sold in December, it only reportedly fetched about 2.5 million. Losses while running the hotel were put at up to £2 million
But within weeks of the NCA taking full control, the White Horse had lost its four-star rating, guest bookings had plummeted and staff were in open revolt.
Evidence gathered by disgruntled staff exposes the hotel’s calamitous mismanagement. A video clip shows water leaking into a room while a photograph reveals that a batch of newly-bought mattresses were too big for the beds.
In 2020, an employment tribunal ruled against the NCA because staff had been effectively fired and rehired to avoid paying redundancy to one employee.
Feedback from some guests was blunt.
A Tripadvisor review in November 2019 complained of ‘very poor service’ and a review the following year, entitled ‘It’s all gone wrong here!’, complained that interior decorations had been removed.
‘The service was OK but the atmosphere is now sterile and the food has gone downhill so much that I shall never return,’ the customer mourned.
Locals claimed the hotel had not been as ‘welcoming’ under the NCA’s ownership. One charity shop volunteer in Romsey, said: ‘They only seemed to be in it for the money. They seemed to only like posh people, that was the clientele they wanted.’
In May 2019, the NCA had announced to much fanfare that it had taken £6 million of assets from an international money laundering network linked to the Russian state, one of their biggest hauls.
The crown jewel was the White Horse, run by £2.5 million lottery winner Amanda Nuttall and her husband Jonathan who had been accused of money laundering.
The NCA originally estimated it could earn up to £5 million from a sale, but by the time the White Horse was eventually sold in December, it only reportedly fetched about 2.5 million. Losses while running the hotel were put at up to £2 million.
Mr Nuttall, who helped run the hotel for a period after the NCA takeover, said: ‘In the context that the NCA had labelled us “criminals”, it was eccentric if not perverse that they would want a gang of criminals to continue to manage the hotel for them which we did for the subsequent six months.’
He added: ‘Throughout the NCA’s stewardship, the hotel was mismanaged and lost money, but it was generously propped up by the taxpayer, albeit without their knowledge or consent.’
Despite the NCA and Dame Lynne’s claims, it is estimated the probe has cost the taxpayer up to £1million and is currently the subject of a fresh High Court battle over the NCA’s handling of the case.
It comes as Dame Lynne, a former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner and chief constable of Surrey Police who ran the NCA from 2016 to 2021, is being touted as a candidate for the next Scotland Yard commissioner’s role.
Last night, an NCA spokesman said: ‘This investigation concerned alleged money laundering and ultimately the defendants agreed to the settlement rather than face trial. The sale of the hotel was delayed by the pandemic. The NCA took on considerable repair work necessary as a result of the state in which the property was handed over.’
Source: Daily Mail