European edition, Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Plans for hundreds of off-base houses near RAFs Mildenhall and Lakenheath in England are all but dead after the local government rejected the service’s estimated housing and population numbers for the coming years.

Citing the unknown impact of Air Force restructuring in the next five years and possible plans to build 70 houses at nearby RAF Feltwell, the Forest Heath District Council’s planning committee voted to reject the service’s housing needs estimates at a meeting on April 25.

Rejection of those estimates, used by the council for planning purposes, basically will eliminate the possibility of the council releasing any undeveloped tracts of land for Air Force construction because there is no demonstrable need, said Nigel McCurdy, the council’s strategic director who recommended the move to the planning committee.

Air Force officials estimated an unmet need of about 440 off-base units in the coming years around Mildenhall, Lakenheath and Feltwell in a housing needs analysis released late last year.

“It’s uncertain what the American need may be,” McCurdy said. “There is now not any agreed operational figure on which to plan any new military development off base.”

Force reshaping and possible housing construction at Feltwell has made such Air Force estimates questionable, McCurdy said.

Despite repeated requests for comment, local Air Force housing office and Lakenheath public affairs officials did not answer questions submitted by Stars and Stripes regarding the off-base development and potential housing construction on Feltwell.

“The question arose, were these houses really necessary?” said Roger Crane, who chaired the council’s planning committee at the time of the vote. “There was a great opposition to it in Mildenhall. From what we could gather, there was no need for those houses.”

No planning application was submitted in connection to the development, but Ashwell Property Group, a Cambridge-based company that was contracted by the Air Force in 2005 for the job, held town hall meetings last year which included development designs for locals to review.

It is not clear how much the Air Force may have paid Ashwell for its services.

In order for the council to approve such a large housing development, there has to be a proven unmet need and proof that such a need can’t be met with additional on-base housing, McCurdy said.

Building the 440-unit development would require construction on undeveloped land, which runs counter to British planning policy and would require an exception to be made, McCurdy said.

The plan also ran into opposition from local residents in and around Mildenhall, Crane said. A group was even started last year called Save Western Mildenhall to fight against the Air Force plans.

“Listening to my comrades, they were totally opposed to it,” Crane said. “They didn’t want to see the encroachment on further land.”

Other plans to build 150 off-base units near Mildenhall were approved in April 2005 and won’t be affected by the council’s latest decision, McCurdy said. But two other Air Force-related housing developments slated to go before the committee on Thursday could be rejected because of the new policy decision, he said.

McCurdy said this does not mean the council is opposed to working with the Air Force again, but planners would like to wait and see what the Air Force’s future in the area will be. He said he doesn’t expect satisfactory population estimates until 2010 at the earliest.

“If I accept that figure now, I could be building houses for people that won’t be here,” he said. “That would be pretty foolish, would it not?”

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