Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus owner is urged to agree land deal as D-Day dawns for anxious workers

Bidder: Jo Bamford
Bidder: Jo Bamford
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Wrightbus shareholder Jeff Wright was urged to offer hope to its ex-workers by accepting a deal for the land the company is based on with time due to run out for a rescue deal this morning.

Mr Wright, the son of company founder Sir William Wright, was urged by trade union Unite to "do the right thing" and "hand over" the land as part of a deal with entrepreneur Jo Bamford, whose family owns equipment giant JCB.

Around 1,200 staff lost their jobs two weeks ago, but it's expected "hundreds" would be redeployed if a deal is done.

DUP MP Ian Paisley last night said that "the life support" which has been propping up Wrightbus since it went into administration two weeks ago would run out today without a deal.

It's understood the business has required the continued support of its bank, Bank of Ireland, to continue in existence.

But it could be liquidated if a deal isn't done by 10am today.

Mr Paisley said there was only one outstanding issue left in talks, the potential sale of the land where Wrightbus is based.

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He said a deal had been accepted involving a rescue of the company by the only bidder left in the process - Jo Bamford, the son of JCB owner Lord Bamford.

But he said a separate deal still needs to be done for the land owned by Jeff Wright, the son of Wrightbus co-founder William Wright, where the main Wrightbus factory is situated.

Mr Paisley said: "The clock is ticking and if a deal isn't done then tomorrow some time the liquidator will be called in.

"There is no plan B and only one option to save Wrightbus - the life support runs out today."

Calling on Mr Wright to do what he could to make sure a deal takes place, Mr Paisley added: "It will be an absolute crime if a deal isn't done and the company isn't resuscitated."

Mr Paisley said he understood that the deal for the purchase of the company would bring back hundreds of jobs, who would be redeployed by the main owner.

While that deal for the main business itself is done, last night a deal still hadn't been reached on the land issue.

Wrightbus rented the land from Whirlwind Property 2, which is owned by Wrightbus chief shareholder Jeff Wright.

Mr Paisley said: "I know there are difficult decisions to be made and those have consequences around them.

"But I have seen what's on offer and I think that in the current circumstances, and where the company is, there's a fair and reasonable offer and it's an offer that allows people back to work and building the best buses in the world."

Administrators from advisory firm Deloitte were appointed to Wrightbus two weeks ago with the loss of 1,200 jobs after cash flow problems arising from trading difficulties.

Mr Bamford had been in talks over a purchase of the company before it went into administration, but was reported to have walked away before a deal could be done.

The price of Jeff Wright's land is believed to have been a stumbling block in deals to buy the company. Another potential deal by Chinese company Weichai also fell through - and it's believed that a rental cost sought by Mr Wright of £1m a year was the stumbling block.

Mr Bamford was in Ballymena yesterday for talks with the administrators but left at 5pm without a deal for the land being reached.

His business Ryse Hydrogen has already worked with Wrightbus on a project to make hydrogen-fuelled buses for Transport for London.

Sinn Fein MLA Phillip McGuigan said: "Sinn Fein would appeal that the issue around the ownership of the site be resolved to enable the buyout to happen and to safeguard the livelihoods of as many workers as possible."

George Brash, Unite regional officer for Wrightbus, said the town had already suffered serious job losses in recent years after Michelin and JTI Gallaher's pulled out of the town.

Jobs were also lost following the administration of Patton Group in 2012.

Yesterday, Mr Brash said: "We understand that the deadline to resolve the current impasse over the site ownership at Wrightbus is now set for 10am tomorrow.

"The issue of the land is now the only barrier to a sale that will safeguard the jobs and livelihoods of this workforce.

"But this is not just about the jobs of the workers, the wages they bring home to their families sustains thousands of jobs elsewhere in Ballymena and further afield.

"This is a fight to save the wider Ballymena economy which has withstood the impact of the loss of Patton Group, JTI Gallaher's, Michelin and other companies in recent years.

"We can't afford to see these jobs go."

He said workers who had lost their jobs in Wrightbus were turning to food banks.

"One worker with two young children and a heavy mortgage was heading to a job fair and then trying to get opening times for food banks in the area having received only £20 in JSA over the past two weeks," he said.

"Our younger members in particular are distraught, they have worked extremely hard through a coach-building apprenticeship and now they say they have nowhere to go. That's the real human cost of closure. We can't just sit back and watch this happen.

"This is the 11th hour in the effort to save these jobs. Unite is calling on Jeff Wright to do the right thing - by this workforce, by their families, and by this town.

"We need him to hand over the land, save their livelihoods and offer hope for so many in the mouth of Christmas. There's still time to deliver a hopeful future but we need him to act now."

A spokeswoman for Mr Bamford's company Ryse Hydrogen declined to comment.

Deloitte also declined to comment. Last Tuesday administrator Michael Magney of Deloitte told a meeting of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council that time was ticking on a deal.

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