Wrightbus family urged to ‘hand land back’ to people of Ballymena

Unite says neither town nor Northern Ireland can afford loss of 1,200 jobs

A protest after Wrightbus was placed into administration last week. Photograph: Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

A protest after Wrightbus was placed into administration last week. Photograph: Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

 

Union leaders in Northern Ireland have called on members of a Ballymena family who own a site connected with Wrightbus to “do the right thing and hand back the land to the people of Ballymena”.

Wrightbus was part of the Wrights Group, one of a number of companies controlled by the Cornerstone Group, which are now in the hands of administrators.

The Cornerstone Group, which is not part of the administration process, is a privately owned organisation controlled by members of the Wright family, including Jeffrey (Jeff) Wright, who is listed as the majority shareholder.

The Wrights Group collapsed after it failed to find a buyer or investor for its bus manufacturing business.

It has emerged that a potential deal that could have saved more than 1,200 jobs at the Ballymena factory fell through because of its “leasing arrangements”.

The Wrights Group did not own its bus manufacturing facility. Instead, this was owned by an investment property company, Whirlwind Property Two Ltd, which is controlled by Jeff Wright.

According to senior industry sources, a number of potential buyers walked away from sale discussions because they were unhappy with how the Wrightbus factory lease arrangements were structured.

Union stance

Trade union officials now believe the Wright family has a key role to play in getting the gates reopened at the bus factory in Ballymena.

Unite’s regional officer, George Brash, said that neither Ballymena nor the North’s economy as a whole could afford to lose 1,200 jobs.

“As a sign of good faith to their workforce and the wider community, we are calling on the Wright family to do the right thing and hand back the land to the people of Ballymena. Such a move offers the best hope to safeguard the workforce jobs and skills and a future for this town,” Mr Brash said.

The Wrights Group’s key operations are based on a 100-acre site that was previously a Gallaher cigarette factory owned by JTI (Japan Tobacco International).

JTI closed the tobacco factory in 2016, with the loss of more than 800 jobs.It sold its entire Lisnafillan site on the outskirts of the town to the Wrights Group, which took possession of the land in 2017.

At the time, the then chairman of the Wrights Group, Mark Nodder, said Ballymena had always been “at the heart and soul of our operations”.

“The purchase of the Lisnafillan site further underlines our continuing and long-term commitment to the town, its people and its local economy,” Mr Nodder stated.

According to union representatives the ownership of the Lisnafillan site is at the crux of current negotiations to secure a rescue deal for the Wrights Group.

When the Wrights Group acquired the Lisnafillan site no details of the transaction were disclosed.

Big deal

According to property agents O’Connor Kennedy Turtle and Knight Frank, who acted on behalf of JTI, the sale of the former Gallaher factory represented “one of the largest industrial land and property deals ever in Northern Ireland”.

Subsequently, in the annual report and accounts for Gallaher Ltd for the year ended December 2017 the document details “gains” of £12.6 million from the disposal of “property, plant and equipment” in connection with its former Lisnafillan site.

Union leaders have also appealed to the UK prime minister Boris Johnson to intervene in the discussions to save the company.

Mr Johnson has a long-standing relationship with the Wrights Group from his time as mayor of London during which he placed an order with the Ballymena company for more than 1,000 new red London Routemaster buses, which became known as the Boris Bus.

Unite believes one possible rescue option for the Wrights Group would be for the UK government, in one form or other, to purchase the Lisnafillan site and operate it as a business park, providing confidence for any potential buyer to go ahead with the purchase of Wrightbus from the administrators.