A STRIKE that has brought bus services to a standstill at one of the North East’s biggest public transport operators shows no sign of abating. 

Workers at Go North East are now approaching the third week of an indefinite walkout that has shut down the vast majority of the company’s routes, after rejecting a 10.3 per cent pay rise offer.

While a new round of talks was held on Monday (November 6) between Go North East and the Unite union, those broke down without any resolution being reached – and, instead, the rancorous public rhetoric between the two sides has continued.

As that bitter war of words goes on, and with no further negotiations scheduled at this stage, tens of thousands of passengers are left to wonder when they can return to normality.

Hannah Allenby, an IT tutor who relied on Go North East buses to get from her home in Bowburn to work in Houghton-le-Spring, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the stress of the strike has had a “really negative impact” on both her mental and physical health.

The 29-year-old, who suffers from fibromyalgia, now has to pay more than £30 to make that journey and back in a taxi – meaning she is now having to work from home most days as she cannot afford to pay that fare every day.

She is also worried about how she will get to a hospital appointment in Bishop Auckland in two weeks’ time if the strike is not resolved by then.

Hannah said: “Even just going to Houghton once a week, that is £120 per month – during a time of financial crisis that is a lot of money to be losing, I am so fed up.

“I walked through Houghton-le-Spring earlier and it was just empty – there are no people coming in at all.

“It is getting near to Christmas now and families are going to be stuck, elderly people are going to be on their own.”

Ben Maxfield, Go North East’s business director, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service on Thursday (November 9) that he was “deeply concerned” about the impact of the strike and that the firm “genuinely values the contribution of our employees”.

He said the pay offer which staff rejected last month would make its drivers the best paid in the region and would cost the business more than £5m.

Asked whether the company could make an improved offer, Mr Maxfield added: “We have said from the very start that we want to negotiate with Unite. What you are suggesting there requires constructive negotiation.

“Our offer of 10.3 per cent follows up 10 per cent last year and it means £3,000-a-year additional pay for many of our bus drivers. I think the public can see that is a fair offer.”

On Thursday, the company released the results of a survey of 500 residents which it said showed that 73 per cent of people believed the 10.3 per cent pay rise was a fair offer and that 54 per cent opposed the strike.

Unite has argued that Go North East’s parent company, the Go-Ahead Group, is “awash with cash” and vowed that its members will not budge.

Regional officer Dave Telford said that bus bosses had “nothing to offer” in this week’s talks and that is why the union walked out of the negotiations.

He added: “We have always been available, that is always our position – that we are available to talk. But for them to call for talks and have nothing to offer is puzzling.”

He also attacked claims made by Go North East on Monday night alleging that the union had demanded pay rises every six months in return for calling off the strike.

Mr Telford said union representatives had suggested staggering a pay rise as part of the negotiations and that it was “simply not the case” that they wanted pay rises every six months.

A reported 175,000 journeys are made every day on Go North East buses, but just 80 services – mostly contracted school buses – have been able to run this week.

The LDRS asked Mr Maxfield on Thursday whether Go North East anticipates being able to increase the amount of services it is able to run while the strike continues, particularly to communities who rely on the operator as their sole public transport option.

He replied: “We are running 80 buses this week, they focus on school contracts, NHS services, and some works services as well. We are working closely with the local authorities and all of our partners in the region to try, as soon as we get any drivers that we can use to run more buses, to use them in the appropriate place first.”

North Tyneside deputy mayor Carl Johnson said at a North East Joint Transport Committee meeting on Thursday that the company publishing surveys claiming support for its position “is not how to solve an industrial dispute”.

Echoing concerns that the strike is leaving entire communities cut off, he added: “This has turned into a bitter dispute on both sides that does not look like it is going to get solved anytime soon. That is not what this region needs.”

Jamie Driscoll, the independent North of Tyne mayor, told the LDRS that the dispute was “seriously affecting the region” and that he was speaking to Unite and Go North East “to see how a settlement can be reached”.

Both he and his rival candidate for the North East mayoral election next year, Labour’s Kim McGuinness, have pledged to take back public control of the region’s bus network under franchising powers that will be granted to the new mayor.

Ms McGuinness called on the Government to intervene now and “force” a deal to end the strike, with transport minister Richard Holden having spoken last week of major investment into bus services by extending a national £2 fare cap to the end of 2024.

She added: “We can’t keep our towns and villages cut off indefinitely, it’s no use just having ministers saying they want to see it resolved but at the same time refusing to put pressure on bus operators.”

Mr Houchen, who last week called for new pay talks and said he believed that “there is a deal to be done”, did not respond to requests for a response.