Bus strike: Transport leader vows to hit Go North East with 'every possible' fine

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon has branded the industrial strike as 'an absolute disgrace'. Credit: Transport North East

A bus company whose routes have been paralysed by an indefinite strike should be slapped with financial punishments, a council leader has suggested.

In a tirade aimed at Go North East bosses, Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon branded the industrial dispute that has crippled much of the region’s public transport network “an absolute disgrace”.

The Labour politician, the region’s most senior elected transport figure as chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee, vowed to hit the operator with “every possible financial penalty” for failing to deliver its services and called for it to be excluded from a £163.5m Government funding pot that had been awarded to improve the area’s bus network.

Drivers and other workers who are members of the Unite union are now in the second week of a continuous strike which has resulted in almost all Go North East buses being cancelled, amid an ongoing war of words over pay.

After the breakdown of the latest negotiations to settle the dispute on Monday, with the union having already rejected a 10.3% pay rise offer, there appears to be no imminent resolution in sight.

In a lengthy statement given to the Local Democracy Reporting Service on Tuesday 7 October, Cllr Gannon demanded an end to the “dire” predicament that has left thousands of passengers facing a travel nightmare.

He said: “Thousands of people are stuck at home, isolated from friends and family, missing work and medical appointments or being late for college. I’ve heard about people staying with friends so that they are near their work and others who are seriously considering moving home because of this. 

“Some people are having to shell out repeatedly for expensive taxis just to go about their daily lives, or to beg friends and neighbours for a lift.  Our town and city centres are in gridlock. It is an absolute disgrace.”

Cllr Gannon called the current strike the low point of a “rotten” and “completely broken” system of deregulated bus services run by private companies, and told Go North East bosses to “stop putting out aggressive communications and instead roll up its sleeves, today – right now, and work constructively with its employees and their trade union to get the buses running again tomorrow”.

Hannah Allenby, who lives in Bowburn, near Durham, uses a Go North East bus for work but now faces a £40 return taxi fare to get there. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Raising the prospect of financial punishment, he added: “Although we have no active role in this dispute, we do have an obligation to our residents to make sure that Go North East’s behaviour does not go unpunished. As local authorities, we pay the company many millions each year for carrying concessionary passes and to shore up unprofitable routes. I will be making sure that every possible financial penalty is applied for non-delivery.

“We recently secured £163.5m of national funding to improve local bus services through partnership. As far as I’m concerned, Go North East is currently in breach of its responsibilities as a partner – we can’t improve services that aren’t being operated, and the company’s actions are damaging the bus network and the lives of its customers. Go North East should not be receiving a penny of this improvement funding until they are providing a bus service worthy of the name.”

A Go North East spokesperson replied: “We recognise the harm that Unite’s strike is doing to communities in the North East and we are doing everything possible to resolve it. That is why we asked the arbitration service ACAS to convene talks earlier this week in the hope of reaching a settlement. Unfortunately, far from negotiating, Unite abruptly increased its pay demands and then walked out after four hours.

“Our pay offer of 10.3% makes our drivers the best paid in the North East. It follows a 10% pay rise last year and means an extra £3,000 annually for many, we have further committed to an inflation proofed increase in 2024. This is the highest pay offer ever given by Go North East and represents our dedication to table the best pay proposal we possibly can.

“We remain committed to dialogue with Unite and we would like to see an end to this strike for the sake of drivers, our customers and our communities. To that end, we urge Unite to reconsider its position and engage in constructive talks with us.

“In the meantime, we are working closely with local authorities to operate 80 buses that ensure children can get to school and nurses can get to hospitals.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...