DAVE GOODERHAM: Base closure offers big opportunity
It was the closest I will ever get to being Maverick. Laying face down at the front of a KC Stratotanker as a fighter jet was refuelled in mid-air.
Okay, so at one stage, my legs completely gave up on me as I was rooted to the spot, forced to sit in one of the few seats in the stripped-down beast of a plane.
But to virtually go nose-to-nose, eye-to-eye, as the best of RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath joined forces was a sight – and experience – to behold.
I know I was lucky. From picking peas (a village tradition) to attempting an assault course at RAF Honington, I count myself very fortunate to have once enjoyed a rich journalistic career. But that moment, courtesy of an invite from RAF Mildenhall, will arguably stand above all else.
We all have our memories of our American friends, who we learned last week will be departing our corner of England in the next few years. I have always found everyone connected with the base to be completely courteous, keen to embrace their surroundings. Their presence will be a big miss – although the surprise news was soothed a little by reassurances over the future of RAF Lakenheath.
If you believe council and community leaders, it also presents a big opportunity. A chance to take such a big area of land and really make a difference. A new airport, business park, even some kind of tourist attraction have all been mooted. Something certainly needs to be done – and sooner rather than later.
Make no mistake about it, the departure of RAF Mildenhall could create a chasm in the town amid reports of more than £100 million being lost from the local economy. Other areas, including Bury, will be affected, but it could be disastrous for Mildenhall.
It doesn’t have to be. The comments in the aftermath of last Thursday’s announcement are right. It cannot just be hollow words, empty promises, in an election year. I don’t think it will be. News that Matthew Hancock MP is to chair a working group looking at the various options is welcome. Likewise, Forest Heath District Council leader James Waters wasted little time in talking up the possibilities – a sharp and instant reaction that also bodes well.
This is too big an opportunity and too huge a concern if nothing is done and the vast land is left to decay.
Agencies and community groups must work together and decisions made before RAF Mildenhall closes so new plans can be relatively seamless.
It will be interesting to see where Mildenhall goes from here. We will all be watching closely.