Forest Heath District Council - Housing will be at the forefront of residents’ minds as they cast their vote in local election

The future of RAF Lakenheath will be central to election battle in West Suffolk on May 7

The future of RAF Lakenheath will be central to election battle in West Suffolk on May 7 - Credit: Archant

Forest Heath District Council covers a large rural area, stretching from the Cambridgeshire border and Newmarket in the south to the town of Brandon on the Norfolk border.

In recent years, the Conservative-led council has been pushing integration with the neighbouring St Edmundsbury borough, forming the West Suffolk partnership.

The cost cutting, or “efficiency”, exercise has seen staff numbers reduce dramatically, as both authorities looked to share resources.

Under the leadership of James Waters, the member for Eriswell and the Rows, the council has been pursuing a business-minded approach, seeking out commercial opportunities in a bid to turn a profit for the council coffers.

Possibly the biggest issue facing the district is RAF Mildenhall. The US Air Force base is set to close by 2022, but could be as early as 2019.

The loss of 3,200 airmen, their many thousands of dependants and the hundreds of UK civilian jobs will take its toll on the surrounding area. The scale of the task is underlined by official figures, which show the region benefits from more than £120million a year from the US Air Force presence.

The impact on the district is lightened slightly by 2,000 airmen arriving at RAF Lakenheath, with two squadrons of F-35 Lightning jets on the way.

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With businesses, and more crucially employers, relying on the Mildenhall base for income, what happens next is a question on many voters’ lips.

And what will happen is a long way from certain. The Ministry of Defence, which owns the site, is set to decide if it has any future military use by September this year, and after that it is anyone’s guess.

Most people believe the base will turn over to civilian use. Everything from a Formula One racing track and international airport to housing and business parks has been suggested.

Housing, across the district, will be to the forefront of residents’ minds. It is also nearly impossible to separate housing from the Mildenhall base closure.

Over in Newmarket, where the ever-successful horseracing industry is king, housing development could not be more contentious. As you read this, an inquiry into plans for 400 homes at Hatchfield Farm is now into its third week.

That is ten days of highly-paid barristers pitting their wits against each other. On one side, the land-owning Lord Derby; and on the other, the racing industry.

The Newmarket Horseman’s Group has set out a series of objections to the 400 homes, 30% of which will be affordable. Its biggest objection, however, is perceived damage to the industry’s success in the form of the conflict between motorised traffic and that of the equine persuasion. Indeed, it claimed at the inquiry just one horse “worth millions and millions” being killed or hurt on the road would be enough to decimate the industry, with its incredibly rich investors all jumping ship to Chantilly in France.

However, it does not take long before it all comes back to the closure of RAF Mildenhall. Last week it was suggested by the industry that the mere possibility of housing land becoming available at the base is reason enough to deny 400 houses in the home of horseracing.

Over in West Row, which is the home of RAF Mildenhall, housing is inevitably on the lips of many residents, especially in the light of plans for 130 homes in their small and rural village.

The argument for them, however, is that when the base closes, surely the area will be flooded with excess housing. So why build any more now?

Housing development is a real voting issue for almost every resident, for many it is the threat to the character of their town or village, but for many others, especially the young, it is the possibility they will have to leave the area as not enough affordable housing is built.

At the heart of this issue is the Local Plan, or lack thereof. Forest Heath has been unable, since an earlier planning appeal in 2010, to draw up a plan and allocate the 7,000 homes needed across the district. In fact, it will only be in place by 2017 at the earliest, following a consultation starting this June.

This has left many residents feeling they are open to speculative housing applications, as the council is only able to apply national, not local, planning policy.

Historically, the council has seen several Conservative seats uncontested at the election. This year, the formation of the West Suffolk Independents (WSI) has put an end to the worrying tradition.

With 13 candidates standing, every seat is now contested, and in several wards residents face the choice of either Conservative or WSI.

For full list of candidates, see here or visit our dediated election page for full coverage of both local and general elections