OFFICIALS have admitted a prime site being handed over cut-price to a “religious cult” could have been used for housing.

John Barnes, an East Sussex councillor involved in scrutinising the process, said questions remain over the policy which saw spiritual group Subud awarded the former St Anne's School site in Lewes.

The Argus revealed yesterday that independent Lewes estate agent Charles Wycherley valued the four-and-a-half-acre site at £2.75 million with planning permission for housing. He said it "could hardly be more prime".

Today this newspaper can also reveal how East Sussex County Council's own independent valuation of the site was £1.3 million without planning permission - twice the price of Subud's £525,000.

Cllr Barnes said: “If we sold it [for housing] it would be jolly useful to have a couple of million.

“If you were to get permission for housing you might have got better value.

“Obviously there are questions over policy there and it’s legitimate to ask if we should have got best value.

“The housing bid wasn’t ruled out. But if we are going for maximum value we would have proceeded differently.”

Subud came under fire after the decision was announced after opponents unearthed homophobic literature and teachings that implied the group was religious. The group has strenuously denied it is religious or harbours homophobic views.

A county council budget meeting on Tuesday heard calls for the Subud decision to be reviewed again.

Rita Ellis, who was at the meeting, told The Argus: "I just find it incredible. For the council to sell it to a religious cult is ludicrous when it should be affordable housing."

The sale is yet to be completed, though the council and Subud have said they are carefully working through the documentation.

Two of the councillors involved in a steering group set up to tender out the site for community use, Susan Murray and Ruth O'Keeffe, conceded housing was an option on the table but stood by their decision.

Cllr Murray said: "They could have decided to get rid of it at a commercial rate. But it's not just about the money. I think in this case [disposing of it as a community asset] was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

"There's an argument on both sides but I stand by the community value."

Cllr O'Keeffe said housing was not ruled out: "It wasn't that we kept beating people back who wanted housing.

"The clamour at the time was people saying they felt deprived of being able to walk through the site."

John Stockdale from the Lewes Community Land Trust lost out - despite bidding £100,000 more than Subud.

He told The Argus: "In the light of huge cuts in the council's budget, I am at a loss as to how it can justify giving away a prime site in the middle of Lewes for a song.”

A county council spokesman said the value achieved was based on the best use for the site.

The Argus:


SO THE story goes, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo was taking a late-night walk when he found himself enveloped in a brilliant light and looked up to experience the sun falling directly on to his body.

He thought he was having a heart attack. Believing he was dying at the ripe age of 24, he went home and surrendered himself to God.

Instead of dying, however, he was moved from within to stand up and go through his normal Muslim prayer routine – seemingly being guided by what he interpreted as the power of God.

The same experience reportedly happened to him for a few hours each night over about three years, giving him an “inner teaching”.

The year was 1925, the place was Indonesia. Subud was born.

Known as Bapak, he spread his teachings and by the early 1930s his reputation had grown.

By imparting his knowledge of “latihan”, a state of active meditation in which people are moved to sing, dance, cry or remain still, others were able to perform the same exercise to clear their minds.

It was clearly contagious as, over the next 90-odd years, Subud garnered 10,000 followers worldwide.

One of its biggest concentrations in Britain is in Lewes where, over the past 40 years, Subud has built up about 150 people actively following its teachings.

Despite being a seemingly peaceful underground group that, according to chairwoman Pam Hewitt, was strong during the free love movement of the 1960s, Subud has its detractors.

In 2003, four Subud families clubbed together to buy Pelham House in the town. The mansion built in the 1500s, the former headquarters of East Sussex County Council, was sold to Subud for a little over £2 million before it became a conference centre, hotel and wedding venue.

Fast-forward ten years and Subud was sharpening its pencils to draw up a bid to buy the former St Anne’s School site – also owned by the county council.

Add to this its involvement to establish the independent Lewes New School in September 2000 and locals might be wondering what Subud can offer that others cannot.

Where the two failed bids – from a team called the Lewes Community Land Trust and the YMCA – who wanted to build affordable housing, Subud has said the existing site would incorporate two halls for gender-segregated meditation as part of its own practices as well as rooms for meetings and learning.  Later phases would see a café, community garden and possibly even a small amount of housing in one corner of the site.  It argues its current site in Station Street is too small and its sale will help fund the move.

Sue Fleming, of Subud Lewes, said: “As we move to larger premises the halls will continue to be available and let out at current, local rates to help cover running costs.

“When the time comes, we will be seeking participation with the wider Lewes community to discuss ideas and uses that this wonderful site might provide.

“Our overall vision is to  support the well-being of diverse ages and needs: from nursery,  children’s music, youth services to men’s sheds and yoga classes.

“Some ideas that have come forward include: growing projects in the grounds, a community cafe with training and volunteer opportunities and creative social enterprises.”

Following its successful winning bid of £525,000 for the four-and-half-acre site in 2014, Subud faced public scrutiny over Bapak’s historic disparaging views on homosexuality.

Leaders of the Lewes group argue that like any other spiritual group they cannot legislate against some members’ individual views, and stress Subud is not homophobic, and in fact has liberal views where any religion (or none at all) are welcome.

After the county council confirmed in January 2015 that Subud would get the site, the rumblings did not go away.

There have been accusations of the group being a “religious cult” or a “sect” – something Subud denies.

Furthermore, there are suggestions Subud might have had an advantage over the other bidders.

The council, Subud and two councillors, Susan Murray and Ruth O’Keeffe, who helped decide the bid firmly reject any suggestion that there was anything underhanded in proceedings.

But it has not stopped locals wondering why, a year on, contracts have still not been exchanged.

Ms Fleming added: “Subud’s negotiations with the council have not come to a standstill, far from it.  “We are taking time to get very complex details negotiated that best serve the interests of the community and the Subud group in Lewes.

“This is indeed a uniquely beautiful site, a treasure for the community, and we agree that we need to get on with this as soon as we can for the benefit of all.”

John Barnes, a councillor who oversaw the scrutiny process after all the outcry, admitted he was personally sceptical of the group but said this did not cloud his judgement.

He said: “I think it’s a funny organisation but it was a legitimate bid.

“I couldn’t allow my personal views to influence the process and that was quite difficult for people who didn’t like Subud to understand.

“Publicly it was our duty to make damn sure there was no discrimination [as far as community use of the site was concerned].

“What matters is whether they discriminate against the public. That’s our concern as a council.

“What came as a surprise to me was that the matter is still rumbling on.”


SUBUD is a spiritual movement that was founded in the late 1920s by an Indonesian man named Bapak Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo.

Today Subud has more than 10,000 members in 70 countries across the world.

There are about 50 groups in Britain, with about 140 members forming Subud Lewes. Members practise the “latihan”, an Indonesian word meaning exercise, as a way to get deep spiritual experiences.

Anyone can receive the latihan, following a settling-in period with Subud. Thousands of people from all cultures and backgrounds practise the latihan today.

Subud says the latihan “provides a significant opportunity for people from all religions, and also those who do not conform to an established religion, to follow a spiritual path together and in harmony”.

The latihan starts as an inner impulse, moving the person from within. They sometimes walk, dance, cry, laugh, sing, pray or remain still for about half an hour.

Subud says it is not a trance-like state but adds the benefits also include a deeper contact with God or one’s “higher self”.

The group has been branded a “cult” or a “sect” – labels that Subud rejects. None of Subud’s mMembers do not pay a joining fee but they are asked to contribute an amount of their own choosing towards overheads and supporting the wider organisation.