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Wrightbus boss in push for £500m funding to create 1,500 more NI jobs


Jo Bamford

The owner of manufacturer Wrightbus has said he hopes to bring another 1,500 jobs to Ballymena as he pushes for a Government subsidy to fund the building of more than 3,000 buses in the town.

Jo Bamford, executive chairman of the historic bus-builder, said the use of hydrogen could usher in a new era of environmentally-friendly transport.

It's seeking subsidy funding of £500m from the UK Government, with the aim of building over 3,000 hydrogen-fuelled buses in Ballymena by 2024.

But he said expensive infrastructure located close to windfarms - which would account for £200m of the £500m - is needed to make the mass production of hydrogen a reality.

The company now employs around 550 people in Ballymena, following Mr Bamford's purchase of the firm after its administration last year. However, Mr Bamford told the Belfast Telegraph that 450 had been furloughed, though about 100 engineers are still in employment.

"We'd like to get an agreement on it as quickly as possible then build the infrastructure, and roll it out over a number of years.

"Say you have 12,000 buses on the island - my plan is to decarbonise all buses and all trains, though to fill them up with hydrogen, you need to put money down to build infrastructure."

Mr Bamford is the son of Lord Bamford, the chairman of machinery giant, JCB. A JCB factory in England has been repurposed to produce coverings for new ventilators made by British manufacturing giant, Dyson.

The Wrightbus boss said he had considered a similar repurposing at Wrightbus to produce scrubs or other forms of PPE, but decided it wouldn't be feasible.

"I really looked at it and spoke to dad and came to the conclusion it would be too difficult for us to do it. I really wanted it for Northern Ireland, but it was one step too far, when you consider that what we do usually involves aluminium, big metal welding, and so on."

However, he said he believed a focus on hydrogen fuel in the aftermath of Covid-19 could help the UK's economy, as well as bringing to jobs to Ballymena.

"I am putting a plan to the Government about what should happen when we are coming out from this. I've been through a few downturns in my career, but it's normally not every market that shuts down at the same time. But now, every market is in shutdown, so everyone will be lining up at the start of the race, and leaving at the same time.

"In order to compete, you have to do something different.

"If we got the UK Government behind us, it could get us 1,000 new jobs in Ballymena, and another 500 through the supply chain.

"I really think that when we come to get out of the crisis, the UK needs some strings to its bow. Everyone will be at the same starting point to recover economically from the crisis, so we need to have some advantages."

But Mr Bamford said he was reluctant to say when decisive moves should be taken to get the economy moving again.

"It's slightly above my pay grade, but I know we as a business have to be prepared for when we come out of this.

"We need to have the business right-sized and ready to go, whether that's in June or July. But the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is as a business.

"I can't keep people employed indefinitely without an income."

But he said the impact of the lockdown on the environment, with a clearer sky and cleaner air resulting from the fall in traffic, could be an inspiration for greener transport.

"Wouldn't it be amazing to have some green solutions coming out of this?" He said his vision for an all-Ireland hydrogen strategy would result in cross-border transport such as the Enterprise train from Belfast to Dublin running on hydrogen - which can power longer journeys than battery power.

And ultimately, all trains and buses would be decarbonised.

He said he was yet to start talks with the authorities in the Republic, but has set the ball rolling in the UK.

"We have submitted plans to the Government that requests a support package of £500m over four years.

"This will enable us to build and sell 3,000 to 3,500 buses in Ballymena, at the same price as current diesel buses."

As part of its plan, there would be five new zero-emission hydrogen production plants in "disadvantaged coastal parts of the UK", as well as 30 hydrogen refuelling stations to deliver hydrogen to bus depots at below the price of diesel.

New double decker hydrogen buses, designed and made by Wrightbus in Ballymena, will take to the streets of London and Aberdeen later this year.

Mr Bamford has said hydrogen power is a cheaper alternative to electrification as a green fuel source.

The company will now be lobbying MPs for support, telling them: "The UK is already the most advanced in its research and testing into the potential of hydrogen. We must take urgent steps to strengthen this position and ensure our skills, products and services are exported."

Belfast Telegraph