The end of an era was announced last Thursday when the Pentagon declared it would be closing RAF Mildenhall – one of the UK’s largest USAF bases with strong economic and social bonds with the community.
Following hours of speculation, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed the news so many had waited for – around 3,200 military personnel will be leaving the base over the coming years.
This blow was softened by the news that neighbouring RAF Lakenheath would become the first European home of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by 2020, with plans for two squadrons at the base and 1,200 troops to be stationed with them.
The USAF anticipates around 2,600 personnel from RAF Mildenhall will be moved to other locations in the UK and Germany, but the closure is expected to reduce around 1,300 military and civilian positions in the area.
General Frank Gorenc, US Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, said: “We understand these changes will have substantial impacts on the local areas, but we are dedicated to working closely with our community neighbours, defence partners, personnel and families to ease the impact of these transitions as much as possible.”
With RAF Mildenhall estimated to contribute £200 million a year to the Suffolk economy, the anticipated impact of its closure has prompted reassurances from political and business leaders across the region.
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock announced he would chair a Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth (MAM) Working Group, collaborating with local businesses, councils, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and US reperesentatives to ensure continuing support for Mildenhall and the surrounding area.
“Mildenhall has a long and proud history of strong relations with the United States Air Force. With this deep history in mind news of the proposed closure of Mildenhall will come as a shock to many,” said Mr Hancock.
“I will do everything in my power to support those affected, and to make sure that Mildenhall gets the support it needs to adjust. I have met with the Defence Secretary, and others in Government to ensure we can work, together with the American administration, to support the community.”
Leader of Forest Heath District Council James Waters said the announcement would have implications for many aspects of life in the district, but assured residents the council would ‘not be on the back foot’ in supporting the community through the loss.
“Both announcements mean huge changes to the landscape of Forest Heath – but I am optimistic that with every change there are opportunities for reinvention, growth and investment. We will look to ensure not only that these opportunities are taken, but that any future plans for the bases are the right ones for the people of Forest Heath,” he said.
Cllr Waters said the council would be working with the Ministry of Defence and business minister Mr Hancock, as well as local businesses and residents, to secure Government funds towards the base’s ‘rebirth’ and to ensure any regeneration brought economic and social benefits to the district.
“We have worked hard to better understand what both bases provide for the local economy, so we will not be on the back foot,” he said.
“Both the closure and the expansion will also impact on our own plans for housing and jobs and inevitably on Suffolk County Council’s school provision. As well as liaising with USAFE and the RAF over the changes themselves, Forest Heath will now endeavour to work with the County Council and our other partners to address their impact in terms of the community, economy, education and housing.”
Suffolk County Councillor for Row Heath Colin Noble said: “The announcement was sad news, and our intial response was that we needed clarity. What we have seen in other places is the USAF leaving, the RAF do nothing, it becomes moth-balled and sits in the middle of the community doing nothing. Then eventually the RAF do something with it.
“It is about councillors at Forest Heath working with Mildenhall and county council officers and councillors, about everyone coming together and speaking with a single voice. We need to work with the community and represent them, while also working with our Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and really focusing on the future.
“As the USAF leave we want to welcome in the RAF, and if they choose not to move in we will welcome in new businesses, or whoever wishes to use it.”
Stephanie Palmer, chairman of Mildenhall and District Museum, said the base’s presence and its growth over the years had helped to support the town.
“Obviously it will have an economic impact, but I don’t think the troops put much into the town because they can get so much on base,” she said.
“It is one of those things where you have to sit, wait and see.”
Business leaders from Suffolk and further afield have assured local communities they will work to minimise the economic impact of the base’s closure.
Mark Reeve, chairman of the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership (LEP), which covers Mildenhall alongside the New Anglia LEP, said: “By working together as a part of Matthew Hancock’s Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth (MAM) Working Group we will support the community through these changes, and ensure that our work has a positive impact on the local economy in the longer-term.”
And Graham Abbey, chairman of the Newmarket and District Chamber of Commerce, said: “While we have had the announcement today we’ll need to wait to hear more detail about the schedule to close down the base.
“Once those plans are developed we will work with the business community to look at how local business can be supported and how the closure can bring new opportunities to our economy.”
St Edmundsbury borough councillor Paul Hopfensperger, an Honory Commander for the 100th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron since 2010, said: “I was gobsmacked to say the least.
“I know there have been rumours for some time but I never thought it would happen.
“It was a total shock when you look at what they have been doing over there, constantly building and improving, and how long they have been there.
“The base and the troops have been part of our community for so long and bring millions of pounds to our economy.
To think they are not going to be here is still a shock, and we will have to plan for it. A lot of them are Bury-based so there are going to be a lot of empty houses, and Mildenhall is going to suffer as the Americans are a big influence in the town centre.
“It will need a lot of consideration from the local stakeholders to make sure it doesn’t have a massive impact.”
Gerald Taylor-Balls, Mildenhall parish councillor and West Row resident, remembers the base in post-war years.
“There were more aircraft around then, but as time moved on things changed,” he said.
“I remember the Blackbirds which were based here for a number of years - it was every aviation-lover’s dream.
“It is devastating news which seemed to come completely out of the blue. but I suppose it could have been on the cards for some time. It is going to change the area completely, a lot of servicemen and women and their families live in West Row and many people in the village have kept close associations with them. As far as that is concerned it is going make a big difference.
The whole area is going to change as it has been based around the American being here.
“I think the big question mark is what they will do with it now.”