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RAF Mildenhall withdrawal delayed until 2027

PUBLISHED: 11:30 18 February 2020 | UPDATED: 10:42 25 February 2020

The base is home to a number of US Air Force units. Picture: MIKE PAGE

The base is home to a number of US Air Force units. Picture: MIKE PAGE

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The closure of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk has been delayed until at least 2027.

RAF Mildenhall opened in 1934 and has been operated by the Americans since 1959. Picture: GREGG BROWNRAF Mildenhall opened in 1934 and has been operated by the Americans since 1959. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The base, near Bury St Edmunds, which is worth millions to the local economy, was scheduled to close in 2023 but the United States Air Force has now said this has been pushed back by at least four years.

The closure is part of a US military consolidation plan in Europe first announced in 2015.

Captain Lauren Ott, a US Air Force spokesman at RAF Mildenhall said: "All decisions for the European Infrastructure Consolidation effort are continuing as planned.

"However, the estimated divestiture date of RAF Mildenhall is no earlier than 2027.

A US airman prepares a KC-135 Stratotanker at RAF Mildenhall. Picture: TECH. SGT. EMERSON NUNEZ/ US AIR FORCEA US airman prepares a KC-135 Stratotanker at RAF Mildenhall. Picture: TECH. SGT. EMERSON NUNEZ/ US AIR FORCE

"It is to do with co-ordination with the various host nations involved. A lot of the aircraft currently at Mildenhall are scheduled to go to Germany and it is about establishing the necessary infrastructure.

"Sometimes those preparations can take longer than anticipated."

In 2018, it was announced more than 500 RAF and US Air Force personnel and their families would move to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire within the next five years but Capt Ott said this would now not take place before 2027.

The delay will be good news for the local economy - RAF Mildenhall and nearby RAF Lakenheath combined were worth as much as £700million a year in total to the West Suffolk, Breckland and East Cambridgeshire economies, a report published in 2016 found.

More than 3,000 US personnel are based at RAF Mildenhall. Picture: PHIL MORLEYMore than 3,000 US personnel are based at RAF Mildenhall. Picture: PHIL MORLEY

The base opened in 1934 and was used by RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. It has been a US Air Force operation since 1959 and around 3,100 personnel are based there.

It houses a number of units including the 100th Air Refuelling Wing and the 352nd Special Operations Wing.

Sara Mildmay-White, deputy leader at West Suffolk Council said: "We look forward to continuing working alongside our American friends and neighbours at RAF Mildenhall as well as supporting the growth coming through the expansion at RAF Lakenheath and the contract opportunities it presents for local businesses.

"Once we have certainty over a closure date for the Mildenhall base we are ready to lead on its future regeneration, but we have many military personnel and their families in our area and we are delighted they will continue to be a part of our communities in West Suffolk for at least the next seven years if not longer."

Sarah Mildmay-White, deputy leader of West Suffolk Council. Picture: GREGG BROWNSarah Mildmay-White, deputy leader of West Suffolk Council. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Ian Shipp, who represents Mildenhall on the council where he is leader of the Independent group, said it was "fantastic news".

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"We've always had a very good relationship with the bases, they bring a lot to the area not just economically but also culturally. They are a big part of the community," he added.

Ruth Bowman, the mayor of Mildenhall, said any delay to closure was good news locally.

Mayor of Mildenhall Ruth Bowman. Picture: WEST SUFFOLK COUNCILMayor of Mildenhall Ruth Bowman. Picture: WEST SUFFOLK COUNCIL

"Both bases are important to us, not just economically but also because of the relationships that have been built with the Americans over many years," she said.

"However you have to be realistic about these things. Operational needs have to be met, yet while Mildenhall will eventually close, Lakenheath is growing.

"There will be new facilities there so that means there will be growth, which we hope will continue to support the area for many years to come."

Matthew Darroch-Thompson of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce for Newmarket and district, said the delayed closure just increased local uncertainty regarding the site over the short term.

Matthew Darroch-Thompson of Suffolk Chamber. Picture: DAVID GARRADMatthew Darroch-Thompson of Suffolk Chamber. Picture: DAVID GARRAD

But he added: "We hope that with additional time, the Ministry of Defence and our local authorities can continue to work together with regional businesses to plan for the future of the site and a solution that will add real value to the local economy, whether through housing, employment land, job creation or a mixture of all three."

What are the bases worth?

When the US Air Force first announced plans to wind down Mildenhall and expand nearby Lakenheath a study into what the bases were worth to the local economy was ordered by the former Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury district councils.

Its concluded the bases were worth £690 million at 2011 prices to the districts of Forest Heath, Breckland, St Edmundsbury and East Cambridgeshire, with 15,400 jobs - 6,500 taken by local people - and a major effect on the supply chain locally and nationally.

US personnel and their families are a familiar sight in nearby towns such as Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket - many live off-base, mainly in privately-rented accommodation.

They are paid comparatively well - a junior sergeant's starting salary is equivalent to £21,500 sterling, rising to £30,000 - so their spending power in local shops and businesses is also significant.

A vision for the future of RAF Mildenhall was drawn up by Forest Heath District Council and partners was published in 2016 following a public consultation.

It called for continued aviation use with a mix of housing, employment and public open space, but ruled out a passenger or commercial airport.

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