A deal to end the huge strike that has crippled North East bus services was “incredibly close” – but latest negotiations fell short of a resolution once again.

Union chiefs say that they believed they were nearing an agreement with Go North East that could have settled the bitter industrial dispute which has resulted in most of the operator’s services being cancelled and some communities being left cut off from public transport. However, a new round of pay talks on Monday ended without a deal being struck and the strike by Unite members will continue for now.

More than 1,300 drivers, engineers and other workers are now into a fourth straight week of a continuous walkout – which followed two previous weeks of industrial action in October. The union has also confirmed to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that it is preparing to ballot its members for a second time to secure a mandate that could keep the indefinite strike going beyond Christmas.

Workers have already rejected a 10.3% pay rise offer from the company, which Go North East has insisted is a “fair deal” that would make its drivers the best-paid in the region. Unite had been calling for a 13% increase for its 1,300-plus members, but has also complained that bus drivers at Go North West currently earn an average hourly wage that is more than £5,000-a-year higher than their North East counterparts.

Following Monday’s latest round of unsuccessful negotiations, Unite regional officer Suzanne Reid told the LDRS: “We got incredibly close. We were hopeful that we would be able to resolve the dispute.

“What we keep saying is that if they put a fair offer on the table then we will be able to turn things around in 48 hours and get us back to normal – and people will be able to rely on buses again to do their Christmas shopping, get their kids to school, etc. We went into these negotiations hoping that we would be able to get an offer that we could put to our members. We did come quite close, but the offers on the table did fall short of what our members’ aspirations would be.”

She confirmed that the union is planning a new ballot of its members for a mandate to continue the indefinite strike. Under the law, workers taking industrial action have legal protection for 12 weeks from when it started. As Unite members at Go North East began their first strike week on September 30, that 12-week period allowed under the current ballot would end on December 22.

Ben Maxfield from Go North East
Ben Maxfield from Go North East

Ben Maxfield, Go North East’s business director, said the prospect of a second ballot was “completely unnecessary and will just bring more worry and heartache”. He said: “We are deeply concerned about the impact Unite’s strike is having on the people of the North East and our priority is to resolve it, and get buses back out on the road.”

Mr Maxfield added: “This again puts into question how serious Unite are about a settlement, or whether the union’s goal is simply to strike for as long as possible. We are urging Unite to negotiate with us, so we can settle the dispute and get the region’s buses back out on the road. Unfortunately, they appear in no mood to do so at present.”

Negotiations were due to resume this Friday but have now been pushed back to Monday, November 27. Since last week, Go North East has been running a skeleton service on certain routes.

But the North East Public Transport Users Group (NEPTUG) warned that the ongoing disruption is causing “ hardship for thousands of people who rely on buses to get to work, shop, school, or medical appointments” – particularly in areas like Houghton-le-Spring, Washington, Consett and Ryton.

Calling on the bus company to up their offer to drivers, NEPTUG chair Vicki Gilbert said: “Driving a bus is a skilled and stressful job, and we’re grateful for our bus drivers who have to negotiate difficult driving conditions and traffic congestion to transport safely up to 100 people on their vehicle. Drivers also have to deal with anti-social behaviour, and look after older passengers or people with disabilities.

"To do this properly and effectively, and to ensure high driver morale and a lower staff turnover, Go North East must demonstrate that they value their skilled staff and offer them pay, terms and conditions that match the difficulty of the job. The sooner this happens, the sooner bus drivers can get back to the job of transporting many thousands of people safely across the region.”