The church of Scientology has angered neighbours at its UK headquarters by expanding its facilities without planning consent and felling trees in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.
Residents close to the sprawling HQ near East Grinstead in West Sussex have accused the church of “selfishly and arrogantly” carrying out “destructive development plans before authorisation” by building a coach and minibus park before securing planning permission.
People in the hamlet of St Hill Green are objecting to noise and light pollution and what they say is the destruction of wildlife habitats, including the cutting down of 22 trees. A planning application has now been lodged for retrospective consent.
Locals have also raised concerns that some councillors have declared gifts or hospitality from the church, including gala dinners at its St Hill Green HQ attended by Tom Cruise, Scientology’s most famous adherent, and its California-based leader David Miscavige.
The politicians who were entertained by the church include four members of East Grinstead town council’s planning committee, the council’s mayor and two district councillors who represent the ward. The council’s planning committee is to give its view on the planning application on Monday before Mid Sussex district council makes the final decision.
St Hill Green used to be home to Scientology’s founder, the American science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, or as Miscavige told his followers: “[He] discarded the body he had used in this lifetime” in order to move on to advanced religious research.
East Grinstead’s mayor, Bob Mainstone, said he taught Miscavige at secondary school when Miscavige moved from Pennsylvania to East Grinstead as a teenager in the early 1970s with his family to practise Scientology alongside Hubbard. Mainstone said he has since been the church’s guest at gala dinners at the HQ and met Miscavige and Cruise at the 2015 event. He said he is not a Scientologist himself, does not discriminate against them and that residents should not fear any bias.
“The [planning] decision is made by those who don’t have an interest,” he said. “Those who do have an interest remove themselves from the room and don’t hear the application.”
Dick Sweatman, councillor for the local ward, has declared gifts or hospitality from the church worth at least £40, while the other ward councillor, Edward Belsey, has told residents that he has been a guest at the Scientology annual gala. Sweatman and Belsey are listed as council contacts on the online planning application file.
The stories you need to read, in one handy email
In a formal objection, local resident Mandie Iverson, told planners of her “concerns regarding a transparent, impartial consideration of this application give the apparent declaration of interest in the church by a number of council members”.
Another resident, Gail O’Reilly, asked: “Why would the church of Scientology assume that they will be granted this application? Were they given a nod and a wink that it would be OK?”
Mainstone said there was “no foundation” for suggesting any councillors had assured the church they would receive consent.
The chair of the planning committee, Jacquie Russell, said: “I would expect any councillor who has declared interests with the church of Scientology to leave the room.”
A spokesman for the church of Scientology said the works were “a significant improvement” and that more trees have been planted than have been removed.
Asked why it went ahead with works prior to planning consent, he said it was “an administrative mistake and we are now rectifying the matter with the planning application”.
He added that the church has “a very professional relationship with local councillors” and invited thousands of non-Scientologists to its events.
Among the events attended by councillors was last October’s gala celebration of Scientology’s achievements at St Hill where Miscavige addressed a crowd about “the majesty of the International Association of Scientologists” and celebrated a year of “expansion and accomplishment”.
The weekend-long event featured a patrons ball “in recognition of the newest patrons and their commitment to supporting the humanitarian activities and organisations that are the hallmark of the International Association of Scientologists.”
Scientology was founded by Hubbard in 1954. At its simplest level, it encourages followers to engage in counselling sessions known as auditing with a view to “going clear” of supposedly harmful patterns of the mind. Above that level followers aspire to become “operating thetans”.
Teachings at this level are said to involve Hubbard’s accounts of cosmic events that took place millions of years ago. Former members have claimed the church operates a “disconnection” policy, which requires Scientologists to leave behind friends and families who are considered “suppressive persons”.
Scientology has denied this. At the 2011 census 2,418 people in England and Wales said they were Scientologists, fewer than the number of people who said their religion was “heavy metal”.