Ballymena busbuilder looks at unsure road ahead

Cantillon: Bamford buys Wrightbus but how many jobs will survive in business blackspot?

Wrightbus workers  outside the plant in Ballymena: they hope for good news with acquisition. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP

Wrightbus workers outside the plant in Ballymena: they hope for good news with acquisition. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP

 

The 1,200 workers let go at Ballymena busbuilder Wrightbus when it crashed into administration are waiting to hear how many of their jobs will now be saved with the acquisition of the business by British businessman Jo Bamford.

A meeting on Monday concentrated on letting workers know their welfare rights and how to go about claiming them with their P45s.

Looking back at jobs data in Northern Ireland, it is easy to understand just how real is the concern of the redundant workers and how angry they are at perceived shortcomings by management and shareholders at the one-time local success story.

Ballymena is in the Mid and East Antrim council area, which has seen the lowest jobs growth of any local authority in Northern Ireland over the past eight years. Between 2011 and 2018, the total number of jobs grew by just 4 per cent or roughly 1,700 jobs. This compares with 11.4 per cent across the North as a whole.

Manufacturing companies

In manufacturing companies like Wrightbus, the figures are even worse. Since 2012, there has been a 13 per cent fall in manufacturing jobs in the local area. The local authority with the next worst performance is Belfast, and even it saw growth – albeit just 0.6 per cent. In contrast to these, Mid-Ulster leads the way, with growth of 35 per cent.

As Paul Mac Flynn, senior economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute specialising on the Northern Ireland economy – and the man who drew together the data above – notes, it is clear that the jobs recovery in the region over recent years never took hold in Ballymena. The closure of Michelin, JTI/Gallahers and now Wrightbus have come as the rest of the North’s economy is advancing.

The Wrightbus workers will hope this week brings good news, at least for some, from Mr Bamford. But the experience of recent weeks should give pause for thought – both for the Brexit-cheerleading owners of the company and local policymakers – as the North faces into even greater economic challenges.