Valuable landmark properties worth tens of millions of pounds are in danger of going to "rack and ruin" across England under the ownership of the Church of Scientology, a legacy of an aggressive expansion plan devised by the religious group's controversial leader David Miscavige.
Historic listed buildings in Manchester, Birmingham, Gateshead and Plymouth have been purchased over the past decade for an estimated £10.35m under the Church of Scientology's "Ideal Organisations" project to expand into new communities across the world. This value is likely to be substantially higher today after years of property price rises.
Now Scientologists face battles with local authority planning departments amid support for costly compulsory purchase orders to bring the properties back into use by their communities after years of redevelopment delays, despite promises to lavish millions on renovation.
Critics of Scientology call it a "cult" and say the expansion – described as a "spectacular failure" – was intended to generate donations for property development work which has not materialised. The church strenuously denies these claims, insisting it is a legitimate religion recognised by the European Court of Human Rights and the British High Court. Church officials added that Scientology's growth over the past decade has been "meteoric" and that progress is being made to develop the properties.
However, Roger Godsiff, the Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green, claims Scientology is a "money-making cult". He said he would "support a compulsory purchase order" on a property the church owns in his constituency which is in danger of going to "rack and ruin".
David Jarman, a councillor for Longford ward in Trafford, the location of another of the properties, said he is "in favour of developing these old buildings with character and compulsory purchasing if necessary". Liz Cook, editor of a local history website in Plymouth, said she "would support compulsory purchase by the council".
In Trafford, Scientologists own the Duckworth's Essence Distillery, the listed former works of a Victorian flavourings manufacturer, which was bought in 2006 for a reported £3.6m, though the price is not stated in the Land Registry title deed for the property.
In Gateshead, the church owns the Windmill Hills Nursing Home, a listed former care home and Victorian school, bought in 2007 for £1.5m.
It also owns Pitmaston House in Birmingham, which is listed and the former home of a wealthy local family of brewers. Worth £4.25m, it was purchased as part of the whole surrounding estate in a £7m deal in 2007.
In 2009, the church purchased the Royal Fleet Club, an old sailors' home, in Devonport, Plymouth, for £1m. All properties remain undeveloped by the Church of Scientology.
"The creation of really wonderful places of worship requires a lot of effort and wherewithal," said Graeme Wilson, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology in the UK. "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."
Known as Ideal Orgs, they are religious centres to serve as local hubs for Scientologists, paid for by members of the church. They have opened around the world in locations as varied as Atlanta and Tel Aviv. But Scientology's critics say this is a hollow expansion to give the impression of a growing religion and fend off accusations that it is in decline. Moreover, they say, it is an effective way of raking in cash from dedicated followers.
Pete Griffiths, an ex-Scientologist who ran a mission for the church in Cumbria before leaving it in 2008 after more than 20 years, said he believes the Ideal Org expansion is "to try and get as much money as possible out of the few remaining members".
"[It's] a scheme that is going to take years to complete because those few remaining members would never, ever question the ethics and morality of the people who were taking the money from them," said Griffiths. "Sometimes what they have to do is raise more money, because obviously some of these buildings are derelict, so they raise more money to refurbish them and get them up to scratch. And of course, a lot of these people are flat broke anyway. Some of them are waking up to what's going on. The money's not coming. That's why these buildings lie empty for years."
Martin Padfield is another former Scientologist who left the church in 2008 after 28 years of active involvement, including working for the US organisation where he said he met Miscavige twice. He said big fundraising events would be held for the Ideal Orgs programme, which he had attended, where members would be "bombarded" with "incredible hard-sell techniques". Crucially, many Scientologists would then hand over their money, often ending up in debt, he said.
"[Miscavige] was going to now build these huge cathedrals all over the world and the public would miraculously flock in," Padfield said. "It has been a spectacular failure because you just don't expand any business that way... you don't go and hire a massive new expensive premises and hope your customers are going to flock into it."
Padfield claimed that the expansion had "the exact opposite effect of the one intended" because Scientologists had started walking away from the church. "There's only so much debt you can get yourself into," he said. "A lot of the public started seeing through this and from 2009 onwards it has been a pretty dramatic decline in membership ever since."
Wilson said Scientology's fundraising practices are entirely in line with other world religions with "all funds used to alleviate societal ills. Equally, like most other religious bodies throughout history, our buildings come about as a result of outstanding contributions from our parishioners. In many countries, religious bodies receive government funding through taxation. This is not the case with the Church of Scientology, which is supported by its parishioners alone."
The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction author, and is known today for its celebrity members, including the Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta. It claims to have more than 11,000 churches and affiliate organisations across 167 countries, and growing.
The church, which promotes its own belief system called "Dianetics", has faced allegations of abuse, harassment and mistreatment of current and former members. But church officials deny such allegations and claim they are often the subject of religious discrimination.
"The Ideal Org programme is entirely about creating churches which provide an ideal environment for people to engage in religious services and as an emanation point for all the church's social programmes – including drug rehabilitation and education, criminal rehabilitation, human rights and moral education, youth literacy and disaster and suffering relief," Wilson said.
"It is not about anything else. It is contributed to by parishioners who support this purpose – in exactly the same way that followers of other religions contribute to better churches and places of worship for their religions, the world over."
A statement from the media relations department of US-based Church of Scientology International said its "goal is the establishment of 'Ideal Church Organizations' in every geographic area our churches currently exist. To date more than 45 new Churches of Scientology opened to minister to parishioners and communities in major cities around the world, with the most recent the expansion of our Advanced Organization at Saint Hill, England, new Churches in Tokyo, Japan, Bogotá, Colombia, and Basel, Switzerland, and a new Church of Scientology in Atlanta, Georgia in April 2016."
Church of Scientology Religious Education College Incorporated
The Ideal Org buildings in England are owned by the Church of Scientology's branch in Australia, called the Church of Scientology Religious Education College Incorporated. Australia gives Scientology tax-exempt status as a religious charity, which it does not have in the UK. Wilson said its incorporation in Australia is for "entirely historical reasons" and nothing to do with tax.
According to the most recent accounts for 2014, the total value of freehold property owned by the Church of Scientology Religious Education College is £25,648,728. This includes the vacant properties in England. The accounts also state that £7m has been committed "for renovation work in respect of the entity's premises".
In the past, critics have accused the Church of Scientology of using the Australian organisation for tax reasons; as one link in an international chain of Scientology groups which funnel money to each other through loans and payments for services, cutting their tax bills in a way similar to multinational corporations. Purchase of the Pitmaston property in Birmingham involved two Isle of Man registered companies which later listed two Scientologists as directors.
"Our accounts are audited by independent accountants in the normal way, and any taxes which are payable are paid," Wilson said. "The church in England enjoys a lot of support from the international church community, including financial support in the form of loans and gifts for major projects. This is wholly about advancing the religion of Scientology, it does not save any tax whatsoever."
But the church's wealth has not yet found its way to the English properties for renovation, fuelling frustration in local communities. "It's a shame that it's been left to be so dilapidated, and left to go into such a state," said Angela Douglas, a Labour councillor for the Bridges ward in Gateshead where Windmill Hills is located. "Just use the building or sell it, get rid of it, let somebody else have a chance of redeveloping it."