When world-renowned coachbuilder Wrightbus entered administration, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council immediately activated its Rapid Redundancy Response Programme to keep the factory site open and save as many jobs as possible. We take a closer look at this APSE Service Award-winning scheme.
Based in Northern Ireland, Mid and East Antrim is regarded as the region’s manufacturing heartland, and the area has some of the most innovative, dynamic and forward-looking companies in the world, operating there.
However, few could fail to acknowledge that, among all 11 council areas in Northern Ireland, Mid and East Antrim has suffered the greatest number of significant and high-profile challenges in recent years. The closures of major employers JTI Gallaher and Michelin, in particular, resulted in the loss of over 2,000 high value jobs in the Borough, representing a 13% loss in GVA.
The announcement of the administration of Wrightbus, therefore, added significantly to the general sense of real pressure on the borough’s previously flourishing manufacturing sector.
In October 2019, MEABC – lead by Chief Executive Anne Donaghy OBE - maximised its role as the local authority to support the brokering of a deal for a new buyer for coachbuilder Wrightbus, to ensure Mid and East Antrim’s proud manufacturing heritage was protected, as well as safeguarding the livelihoods of hundreds of residents.
The action taken following the entering of Wrightbus into administration shows that local government – and, in particular, MEABC – was about much more than legislation. Rather, it was about leading innovation, providing leadership and strategy, and encouraging mutually beneficial relationships with both public and private sector partners to the benefit of local citizens.
In this instance, MEABC’s innovative approach to reacting quickly to demand proved to be hugely valuable – maximising the collective pool of resources available to support Wrightbus workers at a distressing time.
The impact of MEABC’S innovative Rapid Redundancy Response Programme was not only felt positively by hundreds of former Wrightbus employees, but by many other manufacturing employers in the borough, who made hundreds of hires and benefitted from the vast range of skills among the redundant workers.
Since it was taken over by Bamford Bus Company, Wrightbus has gone from strength to strength.
In recent months, Wrightbus’ position as a world leader in renewable transport has been cemented with the announcement in December 2020 by the Department for Infrastructure of a £66 million contract for 145 zero and low emission buses for its public transport fleet across Northern Ireland.
The company’s hydrogen double decker buses created an impact across the UK last year when they were first launched in Aberdeen in October, and on January 20 2021, Wrightbus announced it was recruiting 46 new staff to support the UK Government’s pledge to build 4,000 zero emission buses in the current parliamentary term.
Wrightbus is well known to Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the company made the famous Boris Buses when he was Mayor of London.
The Council is proud to be working closely with Wrightbus on a strategic and long-term vision to establish Ballymena as a ‘hydrogen hub’ as it positions the Mid and East Antrim Borough as a key component of the government’s green energy revolution.
By capitalising on the world leading expertise in clean energy which exists within the Borough, and the commitment of the Northern Ireland Executive and UK Government to reduce net carbon emissions, the Council is confident Mid and East Antrim will be rightly recognised as a major player in renewable resources in the coming decades.
Jo Bamford, CEO of Wrightbus, recently said, “We are proud to be playing a pivotal role in the world’s net zero ambitions and this green future - the vision we all have of a zero emission planet - will only be achieved if we all work together.
“Hydrogen’s time is now and Wrightbus is excited to be at the vanguard of this revolution.”
The development of the Hydrogen Training Academy, facilitated by the Council, is an exciting first step in delivering the workforce of the future, responding to current issues and gearing up for future opportunities in the emerging hydrogen economy.
The Academy will deliver a range of entry level introductory hydrogen training in the short term to ensure talent is developed at the grassroots and, in the long term, the Council sees this as a pathway that will attract new talent into the sector through apprenticeship and graduate level provision.
It forms a key strand Mid and East Antrim's wider ambition for the Borough to be at the forefront of the green economy as a key hub for clean technology and the hydrogen economy in Northern Ireland.
In addition to being awarded the prestigious title, MEABC - the only Northern Ireland council to win an award at the APSE Service Awards 2020 - was also shortlisted as a finalist in a further five categories, including Overall Council of the Year.
The Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Peter Johnston, said: “These awards recognise the best and most innovative local authorities in the UK and with over 100 organisations taking part, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has shown that it is leading the way in championing the prosperity of all its people.
“Despite our borough being massively impacted by a number of severe economic shocks in recent years, with the closure of JTI Gallaher and Michelin among them, the Council has demonstrated it can provide the necessary leadership and strategy required to build highly rewarding and constructive relationships between the public and private sectors.
“I congratulate all those involved in ensuring Mid and East Antrim Borough Council continues to be among the top-performing local government bodies throughout the United Kingdom.”
As part of the sale of Wrightbus last year, and recognising the MEABC’s contribution to the transition, approximately 40 acres of land was gifted to the Council as a legacy for the people of Ballymena and Mid and East Antrim
MEABC is now in ongoing negotiations with Queen’s University Belfast in terms of research and development support to develop and deliver an ambitious vision for the site, forming a key asset in the NI-wide Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) project. This project will form part of Belfast Region City Deal and also part of Council’s advanced manufacturing ecosystem vision.
This proposed transformation of the lands into manufacturing space is being driven by MEABC’s Elected Members and Chief Executive.
Ms Donaghy described the company’s commitment of Wrightbus to Mid and East Antrim as “a ringing endorsement of our area’s world-class advanced manufacturing capabilities and skills base”.
She added: “I am extremely excited about what the future holds for Wrightbus, which has a proud reputation as a global leader in its field.”
Through this already strong working relationship, the Council and Wrightbus are laying solid foundations for a vibrant, sustainable and prosperous economic future for Mid and East Antrim and Northern Ireland.
• Mid and East Antrim was named winner in the Best Innovation/ Demand Management Initiative category of the APSE Service Awards, honouring the contribution of local government frontline services and frontline service workers to public services.