CALLS for the North East’s bus network to be taken back under public control have intensified, after the close of a devastating strike that resulted in millions of journeys being lost.

There was widespread relief across the region on Friday (December 1), as the Unite union announced that its members at Go North East had accepted a pay deal that will finally bring an end to a period of bitter industrial dispute. 

Drivers, engineers, and other workers mounted a continuous walkout lasting five weeks, on top of two previous seven-day strikes, which meant that an estimated five million journeys on the Gateshead-based operator’s services were lost – according to data from Transport North East.

The rancorous and protracted saga has left many communities isolated and seen local politicians take aim at Go North East, including threatening the company with financial penalties, while appearing to have hardened the stance of many regional leaders who are keen to take power over vital public transport services away from private companies.

Under the new devolution deal for the North East due to come into force next year, an elected mayor will have the power to franchise buses – giving them the ultimate control over routes, fares and timetables, with private operators running services under a contract rather than the existing deregulated system.

Vicki Gilbert, chair of North East Public Transport Users Group, said she was “overjoyed” by the end of the strike.

She added: “The month has left communities cut-off without public transport and shown clearly just how vital bus services are for people across the North East. It has also demonstrated the danger of private companies having monopolies over public transport, and therefore people’s access to jobs, school, and seeing friends. 

“We hope this awful period will focus the minds of the region’s politicians on the need to ensure public transport workers are fairly paid and that public transport is brought back under public control.”

A franchise model was recently launched in Greater Manchester by mayor Andy Burnham, following a lengthy legal fight.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, who chairs the North East Joint Transport Committee, warned that the Go North East strike had caused “profound” damage and that change was needed to reverse falling bus ridership levels.

He added: “I have long held the view that the current commercial bus system – which removed the ability of local councils to regulate or control bus services – is wrong and works against the needs and wants of local communities and passengers. The new Mayoral Combined Authority will have powers to deliver bus services differently – and this is already happening in Manchester. I have asked for a report into the options and I and my fellow leaders and mayors will be looking at them very closely indeed.” 

Kim McGuinness, Labour’s candidate for next year’s mayoral election, said the strike “exposes the problems in our bus network”.

She added:  “Families couldn’t visit loved ones, businesses lost trade in the build-up to Christmas and education suffered. That’s what happens when a bus operator puts financial concerns ahead of our region’s needs.

“It’s why we need to bring buses back under public control, so we can have one joined-up transport system that works for people.”

Independent Jamie Driscoll, the sitting North of Tyne mayor, has also pledged to bring buses back into public control – something he said would “prevent disputes like this in the future”.

Mr Driscoll added: “The past few weeks have been extremely tough – passengers have been left inconvenienced and out of pocket, which I highlighted in my recent meetings with both Unite and Go North East.”

However, Conservative candidate Guy Renner-Thompson cautioned against the franchise model and told the Local Democracy Reporting Service he would “prefer to work with the bus companies to get more services into urban and rural areas”.

The Northumberland councillor added: “I would not look to take the buses under public control. I would just look to set up a panel to negotiate between the bus company owners and the unions and also to have a panel of bus users. They [passengers] are the ones who need buses.”

He added: “The strike has hurt hard-working people in the region and especially across the Tyne Valley, and that is what the union should have been focused on.”

Bus operators have previously dubbed the prospect of a North East franchise model a “huge waste of public money” and urged council leaders to “forget” the idea.

Go North East’s business director, Ben Maxfield, said on Friday: “The strike over the last month has hit people and businesses in the pocket. I’m sorry for the inconvenience and distress that it caused. We now want to put it behind us and get back to delivering the best possible bus service for all our customers.”