What is the future looking like for west Suffolk after RAF Mildenhall closes?
PUBLISHED: 07:30 28 December 2018 | UPDATED: 16:28 04 January 2019
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As one Suffolk air base is preparing to close another nearby is seeing millions of pounds of investment, bringing with it a sense of optimism for the future of the area.
RAF Mildenhall, which is home to 3,100 serving US Air Force (USAF) men and women, is due to be vacated from 2024, marking the end of the base’s UK-US ties since after the Second World War.
On the other hand, RAF Lakenheath is seeing £160million of infrastructure investment, including a flight simulator facility, a maintenance unit and new hangers and storage facilities, to support the new US Air Force F-35A jets that are due to arrive from November 2021.
It is this boost that will bring opportunities for the whole area, said council leader James Waters, in the face of the impending drawdown at RAF Mildenhall, home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing.
Mr Waters, leader of Forest Heath District Council, said: “The expansion of RAF Lakenheath, which is starting to roll out now, presents huge opportunities for our local communities and our local businesses with £160m from the United States Department of Defense going into the site itself while we believe the F-35 Programme will bring around £1billion of investment and opportunities over the next five years supporting local businesses, jobs and skills.
“So I look to the future of the whole area without fear, but the realism that change will happen, but with it comes opportunities to make the area of West Suffolk even more prosperous and attractive for people to want to live and work here.”
In January 2015 the US Government announced the decision to close RAF Mildenhall following a review of the infrastructure needed to support US forces and their missions in and around Europe.
RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath together could be worth as much as £700million a year in total to the West Suffolk, Breckland and East Cambridgeshire economies, a report published in 2016 found.
Some fear the vast 1,087-acre RAF Mildenhall site, which is owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), could be mothballed, and others remain unconvinced the closure will actually take place.
But Mr Waters said they are continuing to speak with both the MoD and the USAF on a regular basis to understand the latest timeline for closure at RAF Mildenhall, which isn’t currently planned to happen until 2024 at the earliest.
Mr Waters said: “Much of the early work and community engagement that Forest Heath led with partners including the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, has put us in good stead for understanding the potential for employment and housing use on the site, as well as the challenges and the opportunities that will become available.
“That is something that we can review as the new West Suffolk Council as we move ever closer to a definite closure date, lobbying for the necessary Government funds to enable change to benefit our local residents.”
"Right now RAF Mildenhall is still very much open for business"
The MoD announced in November that about 530 USAF personnel and 740 dependants will relocate from RAF Mildenhall to RAF Fairford, in Gloucestershire, and the surrounding areas over the next five years.A spokesman for the 100th Air Refueling Wing said: “It should be noted that the airmen who will be moving to RAF Fairford only represent one sixth of RAF Mildenhall’s 3,100 strong active-duty military workforce.
“The transition is part of the European Infrastructure Consolidation initiative led by the US Department of Defense (DoD).
“RAF Mildenhall is not expected to be divested from the DoD portfolio any earlier than 2024, with units expected to move to Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Bases in Germany.
“However, right now RAF Mildenhall is still very much open for business and the rest of our airmen will continue working at RAF Mildenhall and living in the community with their families for the foreseeable future.”
What could RAF Mildenhall be used for when the US leave?
A vision for the future of RAF Mildenhall - which has welcomed the US military since the end of the Second World War - was drawn up by Forest Heath District Council and various partners, and followed public consultation.
It said: “We believe RAF Mildenhall should be transformed “into a successful mixed use, sustainable community that has aviation and employment to the north and east of the site, housing on the south and south west (and on the expansion land, and around the Mildenhall Hub) and public open space, for example a country park, separating the new housing from West Row.”
The vision for RAF Mildenhall is based on an independent report from development advisers Cushman and Wakefield.
An assessment decided that a new passenger or cargo airport on the site would not be feasible, but identified 200 acres of land for commercial aviation use.
The MoD have previously announced they intend to release part of the site for about 4,000 homes, which caused some concern among residents and businesses, who called for jobs to come before housing.
Ruth Bowman, chairman of Mildenhall Parish Council, said: “The main concern is that it’s used well and it’s not just considered as a massive housing development.
“Mildenhall itself does have its own local plan that does plan for the housing needed for the coming 15 years. We have that in hand for the expected growth.”
She echoed Mr Waters’ optimism for the future with the investment at nearby RAF Lakenheath.
“There are other bases where maybe they have closed, probably not on this scale, and you see pictures of them just bordered up and people don’t know what to do with it. I don’t have that feeling with here.
“I think we are too strategically placed really and we have Lakenheath which is in growth mode.”
Forest Heath District Council said on its website that “as there are a number of uncertainties with the site, not least the actual date of vacation, we are not currently pursuing the development of the site”.
A spokesman for the MoD said: “We announced our intention to dispose of RAF Mildenhall under the 2016 Better Defence Estates strategy, this site is not expected to be vacated before 2024.
“We are committed to working with local authorities to secure the best future use for defence sites once they have been released.
“Engagement has started with Forest Heath District Council and we will continue to do so as the disposal date approaches.”
Will the closure of RAF Mildenhall affect the housing market?
Thousands of US military personnel from RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath live off-base, mainly in accommodation that is rented privately.
While RAF Mildenhall will close, one incumbent F-15 squadron at RAF Lakenheath will make way for the two new F-35 squadrons.
How will these changes impact on the local housing market?
Barry Tennens, who owns Tennens Properties Ltd, which works closely with the USAF Housing Office at Lakenheath, said: “If it [closure] did happen in 2025 as originally stated, the impact would not have much effect on the rental market as they are currently drafting in two new squadrons to Lakenheath, which is the much bigger base.
“This will maintain stability in the rental market and give landlords and future investors confidence to hang on to their properties and certainly keep buying if you have cash in the bank, for secure rental incomes, generally greater than the UK market.”
But he did say the buy-to-let market “is a bit more of a struggle”, with the housing market prices growing, the rents are not keeping up with the growth and yields have dropped between 4/5%.
“But even with higher stamp duty charges and new tax laws, for the long-term investor it is still a safe option and a better return than money sitting in the bank,” he added.