FEATURE: Speculation grows over RAF Mildenhall’s future

David Ruffley MP
David Ruffley MP
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Following decades of investment by the USAF, RAF Mildenhall sits among the most well maintained and advanced air bases in the country.

Now speculation is growing over what its fate will be.

Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley put a question of the base’s future to defence minister Phillip Dunne earlier this week. During questions in the House of Commons, Mr Ruffley said: “The closure of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk represents a staggering £0.2 billion loss to the Suffolk economy, including the loss of more than 700 civilian jobs.

“I know that the Minister for Business and Enterprise, my right honourable friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is chairing the taskforce on trying to continue economic activity in some form at RAF Mildenhall, but will the Minister tell me what steps he will be taking to help fill the massive economic void that will result from this regrettable closure?”

In resonse Mr Dunne said: “This is the first opportunity I have had to put on record at the Dispatch Box how pleased the UK is with the decision by the United States air force to base its first two F-35 squadrons at RAF Lakenheath, which is adjacent to Mildenhall.

“We think that a number of jobs will transfer from Mildenhall to Lakenheath. The base closure at Mildenhall is regrettable, but it will not happen for a number of years. We in the Ministry of Defence will engage with the working group being led by my right honourable friend the Minister for Business and Enterprise, and we will be looking to see whether there is a future military use for the facility. If not, we will work to find an alternative.”

n Forest Heath District Council has announced it will be hosting a series of meetings next month to discuss the effects of the closure on businesses, jobs, housing market and residents. Resident representatives, businesses, community groups and partner agencies such as Suffolk County Council are invited to attend, and all feedback will be taken to the Mildenhall, Alconbury and Malmsworth Working Group, chaired by Matthew Hancock MP.

n Leader of Forest Heath District Council James Waters said: “Within the next six months we need to know whether the MoD have got an interest in it as a military base. This could be a massive opportunity for Forest Heath and the surrounding areas, and we are not prepared to sit on our hands and wait and risk seeing the site eventually mothballed. With that in mind, we are getting on with the task at hand and will be fixing the dates and venues for these public meetings within the next couple of weeks.”

n County councillor Colin Noble believes it is vital for the local authorities to clarify the situation with the Ministry of Defence as regards any possible military use of the base.

“The MoD seem to have moved from not wanting the bases, to maybe wanting the base, to now saying that they will want the base, as was demonstrated in the House of Commons this week,” he said.

“If it is used as a military base, with the RAF involved, it may minimise the loss of the USAF jobs. If they are not going to use it we need that clarity sooner rather than later, then we can plan what to do. Otherwise we will all have to watch it sitting there behind a rusting fence.”

n Moreton Hall-based aviation journalist Robert Archer does not believe the RAF will make use of the base.

“I cannot see the RAF having a need for it because they have been cutting back too,” he said. “They are in the process of spending a great deal of money at a similar outfit near Oxford, so I cannot see them abandoning that for Mildenhall.

“None of the RAF stations in England are as advanced as Mildenhall. It is like a town inside, it’s quite incredible. All of the American bases in the UK have had vast sums of money spent on them and to leave them idle would be a waste.”

Mr Archer said the long runway at Mildenhall and its ‘extremely advanced’ facilities would make it ideal as a civilian airport.

“Mildenhall’s runway can take Boeing 747s comfortably, almost everything can land there safely,” he said.

n Independent candidate for Eriswell and the Rows John Smith believes a more radcial approach is needed in the base’s regeneration.

“People forget what a big site Mildenhall is, it is going to be difficult for someone to just come in and take it over,” he said. “What you need is someone to come up with a really innoavtive idea, there must be a perfect fit out there somewhere. It is a brilliant site but while we keep going down other fanciful roads we cannot embrace them. We need something more innovative.”

n Cllr Gerald Taylor-Balls said: “If it became a civilian airport, it has the potential to employ a lot of local people. I think reusing it as an airport would be one of the best uses of the space. It has one of the largest runways in the country, it has been well maintained and the infrastructure will still be here. We’ll just have to watch this space.”

n Cllr Paul Hopfensperger, who owns and manages a health centre in Bury, believes the land would best be used as a civilian airport.

“It would be perfect as they have such high quality facilities there,” he said.