Belfast Telegraph

Parties given breathing space in hope a deal can still reached on Wrightbus sale after day of bitter recriminations

Wrightbus workers at the plant yesterday
Wrightbus workers at the plant yesterday
Jo Bamford
Ian Paisley
Jeff Wright
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Hopes that Wrightbus can be saved are not dead despite a bitter row between former company boss Jeff Wright and would-be buyer Jo Bamford over whether a deal should include all the land on the company site, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

It's believed administrators Deloitte are giving the parties breathing space to hammer out a deal on the price of land even though Wrightbus was expected to be put into liquidation yesterday if an agreement wasn't reached.

Yesterday the two men traded blows in statements to the media over who was to blame for the failure to reach a deal which could secure the employment of hundreds of the 1,200 workers made redundant by the collapse of the Ballymena firm.

North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley, who was slammed by Jeff Wright for his interventions, said the row marked "either the death throes of an old company or the birth pains of getting something better".

The parties were at loggerheads over whether or not all the land on the former JTI Gallaher's site in Ballymena, where Wrightbus is now based, were included in a sale. It's understood Jo Bamford, whose company Ryse Hydrogen has already finalised a separate deal to buy Wrightbus, regarded the land as part of the deal. But Jeff Wright claimed that Mr Bamford had asked for the "farmlands" to be included in a sudden turn of events at 10am yesterday.

Trade union Unite said problems had come up after another £1.5m for the land was requested yesterday morning.

While Wrightbus itself is in administration, Mr Wright's company is landlord of the company premises - and that company is not in administration.

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Mr Wright said it was "deeply regrettable" that no deal had been done and blamed Mr Bamford for seeking to buy "unrelated additional farmlands which were not for sale".

But Mr Bamford said he'd made an offer to Mr Wright and other members of the family for the factory and land, including a sum matching what the Wright family paid to buy the land from tobacco company JTI two years ago. "Mr Wright has since refused this offer and has now asked for a significantly higher sum of money," he said.

"We want to save this business and put it on a sustainable footing, but regrettably if this offer is not agreed today, we understand that the business will go into liquidation (today)."

The Belfast Telegraph understands that Mr Bamford had agreed to pay an extra £1m in the land deal on Wednesday night and that the additional £1.5m was requested yesterday morning. However, the £1.5m claim has been dismissed by Mr Wright. He said: "The failure by Mr Bamford's Ryse Hydrogen company to complete the deal to purchase Wrightbus is deeply regrettable, especially after the exhaustive efforts all of us involved have gone to in providing every possible support."

He said Mr Bamford was wrong to suggest that the family's land holdings were a problem. "For the record the entire premises at Galgorm including the factory, fixtures and fittings as well as the land was agreed to be made available to all bidders, either to lease or purchase," he said. "Although each and every one of the bidders agreed terms, Mr Bamford also sought to gain unrelated additional farmlands owned by my family.

"These farmlands, which have restricted use, were bought through a mortgage and were not at any time a part of the Wrightbus business."

Mr Wright said no other potential buyer had sought to buy the "additional farmlands".

"Mr Wright does not recognise the explanation provided by Mr Bamford as to why he failed to conclude the purchase of the business," said the statement.

Mr Wright also said Ian Paisley had been "unhelpful to say the least". He claimed that "Mr Paisley continually championed Mr Bamford throughout this process, particularly briefing the media and the unions about the farmland and tying it into the business arrangements".

He urged Mr Paisley to "leave the business of deal making to the professionals at Deloitte".

But Mr Paisley said: "I'm concentrated on helping wherever I can to bring a deal to a close and safeguarding the jobs and futures of workers in Ballymena.

"That land deal is separate to a deal for the main assets of the company which has been concluded between Mr Bamford's Ryse Hydrogen and administrators Deloitte."

TUV leader Jim Allister MLA suggested the nearby vacant Michelin site could be used as an alternative location for the factory. He added: "The mood has darkened but when there's talk there's hope. For the sake of hundreds of jobs they should get the deal done."

Land was also a stumbling block in two other deals, one involving Bamford and the other Chinese company Weichai, which almost got over the line two weeks ago.

Unite regional officer George Brash said: "We are calling on all sides to do the right thing and adopt a sensible approach that will open the door to a future for these workers."

Belfast Telegraph