Wednesday 23 October 2019

Wrightbus workers eye factory floor return after deal boost

Positive: Wrightbus staff celebrate news of a deal for their Ballymena plant
Positive: Wrightbus staff celebrate news of a deal for their Ballymena plant
The Wrightbus factory

Margaret Canning in Belfast

HUNDREDS of workers who lost their jobs when Wrightbus went bust two weeks ago hope to be back in work soon, after a deal for the sale of the land and factory was agreed.

Jo Bamford, a son of JCB chairman Lord Bamford, is believed to have agreed to pay £6m (€6.9m) to Jeff Wright and other Wright family members for the site at the former JTI Gallaher cigarette factory. There has been no further detail given by Mr Bamford on his plans, including how many ex-staff he aims to redeploy.

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The deal also includes an arrangement for 40 acres of farmland owned by the family to be transferred to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.

A separate agreement between Mr Bamford and the administrators of the company has also been made in principle for the business and assets of the group. It is believed Mr Bamford and his firm Ryse Hydrogen will pay tens of millions of pounds.

It is understood there are still some outstanding points to be finalised, though it is expected that details of the final agreement will be confirmed early next week.

In a statement, Mr Wright said the farmland had been "gifted" by him and the family in order to secure the legacy of their father, Wrightbus founder William Wright.

The 40 acres are to be used by the council for advanced manufacturing, and research and development, in a partnership with Queen's University.

Mr Wright said: "This legacy gift is a tribute not only to my father, his father before him, and the Wright family members but, most importantly, it is a tribute to the generations of workers who helped build a proud manufacturing tradition in Ballymena."

Mr Bamford said he was delighted to finally complete a deal in principle with the Wright family. "We are still to conclude a deal with the administrators but are pleased to report this important step in the right direction," he said.

It is understood Mr Wright had been in talks with the council for some weeks and that it had always been his plan to gift some of the land to the council. While a potential deal had been hanging by a thread on Thursday night, some of the extended Wright family were urging Mr Wright to do the "right thing".

One post by his nephew, Chris Knowles, on social media said: "The fact of the matter is that the whole site including farmland was sold by JTI at a reduced price to secure jobs for the area. To remove any part of the site from this deal is only for personal gain. The right thing needs to be done; get the whole site sold and give the people their future back."

A spokeswoman for Mr Wright said he had not been talking to members of the extended family and "did not read social media", so that such posts did not influence his decision.

On Thursday night, Mr Wright and Mr Bamford had been in disagreement about the failure to reach a deal at that point. Mr Bamford said Mr Wright had asked for "more money" on Thursday morning, while Mr Wright said Mr Bamford had "suddenly" demanded that farmland be included in the deal.

However, it is understood Mr Bamford had regarded that farmland as part of the deal all along. Now the farmland is no longer in the deal, although Mr Bamford did not respond to a request for comment on why he had relinquished his interest in it.

Irish Independent

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