For years, the Church of Scientology has owned several grand and historic properties across England, purchased as part of a global expansion plan to build "Ideal Organisations" — religious centres — in new communities across the world. Critics of the church accuse it of being a "cult", which it strenuously denies, saying it is a legitimate religion.
In the Devonport area of Plymouth, which has a rich naval heritage, sits the Royal Fleet Club, an old listed sailors' home dating back to the nineteenth century. It was a 55-bedroom hotel until 2010 when the Scientologists bought up the property for £1m ($1.5m, €1.3m). It is owned by the Australian arm of the church, called the Church of Scientology Religious Education College Incorporated.
It was to be another Ideal Org. The Scientologists said millions would be spent on refurbishment. In the September 2010 newsletter of the South West Landlords Association, an advert suggested the Scientologists were hollowing the new property out, selling off items such as sofas, bar stools, a DJ system, pool tables and other bits left behind, to raise funds.
"The Royal Fleet Club hotel has sadly closed its doors and will undergo redevelopment," said the advert. "The quality furniture, fixtures and fittings will be sold at knockdown prices and I thought this could be of interest to your members, some of whom may wish to upgrade/fit out anew."
By 2013, no work had started or planning application submitted. The church told local press that the project was still in the design phase. There are 10 stages to creating a new Ideal Org, a spokeswoman said, and they were in the fifth or sixth.
As of 2016, no work had started, though the church insisted to the Plymouth Herald it had raised a significant amount of money and the site's redevelopment would begin shortly. Plymouth council's planning department confirmed it had no outstanding applications to develop the Royal Fleet Club. No plans had been submitted since 1995.
"As far as I understand the situation, local Devonport residents are not in favour, neither are residents in the city of Plymouth at large," said Liz Cook, editor of Devonport Online, a local history website. "Over the recent Bank Holiday weekend there were several leaflet distributors in the town centre, urging residents to oppose [planning consent], to write to the city council against giving permission... I would support compulsory purchase by the council. I'm not in favour of Scientology."
A Devonport resident who did not want to be named said he believed all the floorboards were taken out of the Royal Fleet Club after the change of ownership and that a caretaker visits the property on occasion. Oliver Colvile, the Conservative MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, said he has told Scientologists "to step up their efforts in Devonport along with the planning procedure".
"They have completed major fundraising targets so the complete major planning stage has been funded," he said. "They anticipate starting on the exterior restoration work in the coming months. I have advised them that they need to liaise with the local community as I would like to see the Royal Fleet Club brought back to life. I have also advised them to do a Planning for Real weekend where they explain to the community what they are getting up to."
Bill Stevens, a Labour councillor in Devonport who chairs the city council's planning committee, said it is frustrating when historic buildings such as the Royal Fleet Club are not used. "It's one of a number we're keeping an eye on and would like to see transformed back into a good standard," he said. "I'll be watching with a great deal of interest as I do all the buildings that catch our eye and are a subject of interest in our patch, and hopefully we'll be able to see some progress one way or the other."
"The creation of really wonderful places of worship requires a lot of effort and wherewithal," said Scientology's Wilson. "Our parishioners have been brilliant in being actively involved in purchasing buildings and fundraising for renovations. But the cost is great and takes time. We are nonetheless making great strides forward in England.
"We have just completed major phases in the refurbishment and expansion of the church at Saint Hill, East Grinstead – which has been the focus for the last little while. Next will be Pitmaston in Moseley, followed by the others as quickly as we reasonably can."
The building in Plymouth is one of several owned by the Church of Scientology and yet to be redeveloped after years. Others are the Duckworth's Essence Distillery in Trafford, the Windmill Hills Nursing Home in Gateshead, and Pitmaston House in Birmingham.