Church of Scientology accused of allowing historic buildings to fall into disrepair

The Church of Scientology has been accused of “blighting” British towns after buying up historic building worth more than £6m before leaving them to fall into disrepair for more than decade.

An Australia-incorporated arm of the church – founded by American sci-fi author L Ron Hubbard and followed by celebrities including Tom Cruise and John Travolta – owns more than a dozen properties in the UK, including several purchased by Hubbard at Saint Hill in East Grinstead, West Sussex.

They are among 95,300 property titles which i has identified as being owned by foreign entities – from car parks and industrial estates to luxury homes.

The church, which is worth an estimated $2bn, told i it is engaged in a “massive international programme” to establish new churches in major cities around the world – a move it says is “unmatched in modern religious history”. In recent years new Scientology churches have opened in London’s Blackfriars and Birmingham. 

But three properties – a former hotel with two ballrooms in Plymouth, a Grade II-listed former care home in Gateshead and a Grade II-listed factory close to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium – all remain undeveloped amid concerns they are becoming increasingly derelict.

Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport MP Luke Pollard wrote to the church last summer urging it to “either invest in or sell” the former Royal Fleet Club Hotel in Devonport as it was becoming a magnet for fly-tippers, while Trafford Council says it is working with the church to ensure repairs are carried out to the former Duckworth’s essence factory in Stretford after it suffered damage in recent storms.

Mr Pollard said local communities “deserve better”.

He said: “The Church of Scientology is a custodian for an incredibly important building in our community in Plymouth. They’re deliberately leaving it to decay, so I challenged them to use it or sell it.

“After my intervention they tidied the exterior, removed fly-tipping and secured the building but we need a proper plan to restore the building, otherwise they’re just an absent landlord land banking assets in the hopes of better times and more cash in the future.”

The former Royal Fleet Club in Plymouth (Photo: Google Streetview)

In Gateshead, the former Windmill Hills care home was bought by the Scientologists in 2007. Local councillor John Eagle said councils need powers and funding from the Government to take such sites back into public ownership.

He said: “Land banking is a major problem across the nation but it is not just the Church of Scientology who is guilty of it.

“This site is sadly becoming a blight. Local people are really annoyed that it is falling into major disrepair and blights their lives. They and I would like to see the site cleared.”

Gateshead Council said in 2019 that efforts to secure the fabric of the former care home at Windmill Hills, which was built as a school in 1879, had been “ongoing for a number of years”.

Planning permission to turn the site into a place of worship gives until July this year for planning conditions to be met.

A spokesman for Trafford Council said: “As a valued listed building it is important that a long term sustainable use for the building is found and the council continues to encourage the owners to ensure the building is properly utilised and adequately maintained.”

The former Duckworth’s Essence Distillery stands close to Manchester United’s Old Trafford Stadium (Photo: Google Streetview)

The Church said the three buildings are “a priority to complete”. It said: “Our goal in developing each extends far beyond remedying deterioration. Our goal is restoration to magnificence.”

Karin Pouw, a California-based spokesperson for the Church of Scientology International, said: “The buildings in Manchester, Plymouth and Gateshead are of particular import to us and are a focus of attention and priority in our programme to establish new churches.

“We are committed to a full historic restoration of these properties, returning them to their original eminence and beyond.

“In this regard, the Church has retained experts in heritage issues associated with conservation areas and listed buildings who have been working intensively with us to advise on these projects.

“We have also recently engaged an internationally renowned project management organisation, with its London branch now overseeing these three projects.”

The foreign-owned historic UK Scientology sites

The Royal Fleet Club

The Royal Fleet Club in Devonport was a purpose-built Royal Navy home for sailors, which first opened in 1902. It later became the Royal Fleet Hotel, with 55 bedrooms and two ballrooms.

The Church of Scientology bought the unlisted building in 2010 from Midlands businessman Kailash Suri, reportedly for an estimated £1m.

But by 2016, more than 100 people had signed a petition urging the council to reject plans to convert it into a Scientology hub.

In 2019, new plans were submitted to Plymouth Council for a “comprehensive repair, refurbishment and change of use” of the building to enable its conversion to a place of worship.

In July last year, local MP Luke Pollard wrote to the Church asking it to invest or sell the building to a new owner amid concerns it was becoming a magnet for fly-tipping. The rubbish was cleared away and the building secured.

Plymouth councillor Bill Stevens said the Royal Fleet Club is an “iconic building”.

He said: “If the Scientologists can get it working again, then fantastic, but, if not, the best thing would be to sell it on. They have taken action to tidy up but, long-term, we would like to see it brought back into use.”

The church told i it is restoring the Royal Fleet Club with a “comprehensive refurbishment” inspired by the Plymouth’s “rich naval heritage”.

It said the work includes repairing the external render, replacing all windows and the roof.

It said: “Not only will the repair works secure the building’s future, the external alterations have been carefully considered to be sensitive to the historic character of the building and thereby preserve and enhance its heritage.”

Duckworth’s Essence Distillery

The five-storey Grade II-listed Duckworth’s Essence Distillery, which stands around a mile from Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, was built in 1896 to make food flavourings and was described by Pevsner as an “uncommonly stately” office building fronting a factory.

It was bought by the church in 2006, reportedly for £3.6m, with plans following to convert it into an Ideal Scientology Organisation. New plans to restore the building were submitted in 2018, including extensive work to the roof, replacement of brickwork and removal of asbestos.

Trafford Council said it is working with the owner to ensure repairs are carried out after recent storm damage and says it “continues to encourage” the owner to ensure the building is properly utilised and adequately maintained.

The Church told i it takes restoration of the building “very seriously” and its project management firm is currently involved in a “full review” of the property and working with local structural engineers.

It said: “We are restoring all the exterior elements and refurbishing the existing historic interior components such as the decorative cornices and exposed brick.”

The former Windmill Hills nursing home

The Church of Scientology bought the Grade II-listed former Windmill Hills nursing home, which was originally built as a school in 1879 and also served as council offices, in 2007 for a reported £1.5m.

The Church said it has completed a programme of urgent works to prevent further deterioration of the historic fabric of the building.

In 2017, Northumbria Police said it was stepping up patrols in the area to tackle anti-social behaviour after a local pub landlord said needles has been found near the derelict site and people had been seen climbing through the windows.

New plans were submitted in 2019 to create a chapel, offices, conference rooms, exhibition space and café.

Gateshead MP Ian Mearns said they Church has “done nothing” with the site since it was bought. He said: “This is an organisation with significant funds. If they are going to do something, they need to get on and do it.”

The Church said the development of the site includes conversion with three new extensions to the building, replacing windows and reinstating historic features.

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