The Church of Scientology is facing calls to use or sell three historic buildings in the UK after buying them for more than £6m and leaving them undeveloped 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.
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: “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.
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.”
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 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.”
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