Huge relief for workers as crucial Wrightbus land deal is reached
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, son of equipment giant JCB chairman Lord Bamford, has agreed to pay £6m to Jeff Wright and members of the Wright family for the site at the former JTI Gallaher's cigarette factory.
There has been no further detail given by Mr Bamford on his plans for the site, including how many ex-Wrights staff he plans to redeploy.
But with outstanding contracts on the company's books, workers will need to get to work in the very near future. And it's thought around 500 could be needed in the short term.
North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley said he was optimistic about the potential for the bus builder under its new owner: "I would predict that within a year-and-a-half we'll have 1,000 employees back in the site."
Mr Bamford's company Ryse Hydrogen previously won work with Wrightbus to convert 20 buses to zero-emission, hydrogen-fuelled buses.
A separate sale agreement for the business and assets of Wrightbus between Mr Bamford and the administrators of the company has also been agreed in principle and is expected to be finalised early next week.
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The land deal also includes an arrangement for 40 acres of farmland owned by the family to be transferred to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council.
In a statement, Jeff Wright said the 40 acres of farmlands had been gifted by him and the family in order to secure the legacy of their father, 92-year-old Wrightbus founder Sir 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.
"It is my true wish to see this legacy used for the purposes of expanding manufacturing and benefiting our local community."
Mr Paisley said the deal had come about after weeks of work. He added: "The farm land that will be a legacy to William Wright's industrial prowess is a fitting tribute to him and I know that Jo Bamford will work with the council on making sure that is used accordingly.
"To the workers of Ballymena I salute your fortitude and patience."
Mr Bamford, whose family own the construction equipment firm JCB, said he was delighted to finally complete a deal "in principle" with the Wright family for the factory and the land.
"We are still to conclude a deal with the administrators but are pleased to report this important step in the right direction.
"I would like to thank Ian Paisley MP for his hard work and diligence in helping to mediate what has at times been a tricky negotiation."
According to one party close to Jeff Wright, he 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.
As a potential deal was hanging by a thread on Thursday night due to a wrangle over the farmlands on the JTI site, 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 farm land was sold by JTI at a reduced price to secure jobs for the area...
"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, Mr Wright and Mr Bamford had been at loggerheads about the failure to reach a deal. That morning, Mr Bamford claimed Mr Wright had asked for "more money", while Mr Wright said Mr Bamford had "suddenly" demanded that farmlands be included in the deal.
However, it's understood Mr Bamford had regarded those farmlands as part of the deal all along.
Now those farmlands are no longer in the main land deal though Mr Bamford did not respond to a request for comment on why he'd relinquished his interest in them.
Maureen Morrow, mayor of Mid and East Antrim, said she was "delighted" by the announcement of the land sale.
"This is a fantastic result for the workers, their families, Ballymena, and Mid and East Antrim."
According to the council, its councillors Gregg McKeen and Timothy Gaston had also been involved in discussions.
Mr McKeen said: "I am so pleased for the workers and their families.
"It has been an extremely challenging time for all those affected, but today's announcement has given us hope and cause for celebration.
"I commend the efforts and commitment of those who brokered a deal which will ensure our area's proud manufacturing legacy and heritage has been protected."
Negotiations over a deal also involved trade union Unite. Regional officer George Brash said: "The news of this sale was greeted with a wave of celebration and relief by the workers who had, once again, gathered at the factory gates. This result means everything to the workforce, their families, and the wider Ballymena community.
"We need to maximise the number of jobs safeguarded as well as seek guarantees in regard to pay and workplace terms and conditions. This is a tremendous outcome for Ballymena - saving Wrightbus means saving the remaining manufacturing base of the local economy - but this result would never have been achieved without the mobilisation of this workforce."
He said the workers had "kept the pressure on that was necessary to achieving this outcome".