Norfolk bus strike misery looms

STEVE DOWNES Norfolk is braced for another day of transport misery after bus drivers called a 24-hour strike as a year-long pay dispute took a bitter twist.Almost 250 drivers working for First Eastern Counties in Norwich are set to walk out on April 2 - sparking fears of traffic problems, overcrowded buses and a stay-away by city centre shoppers.

STEVE DOWNES

Norfolk is braced for another day of transport misery after bus drivers called a 24-hour strike as a year-long pay dispute took a bitter twist.

Almost 250 drivers working for First Eastern Counties in Norwich are set to walk out on April 2 - sparking fears of traffic problems, overcrowded buses and a stay-away by city centre shoppers.

The strike will affect all services in and around the city, and buses from Norwich to towns including Fakenham, Lowestoft, Watton, Wymondham, Sheringham and Cromer.

Tomorow, the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) and bosses from First will be locked in last-ditch talks aimed at averting the strike - just 18 months after the most recent walkout, which lasted for a week.

The timing of the industrial action is likely to hit shops hard in the run-up to Easter - but its impact will be eased because all of Norfolk's schools will be on holiday and school buses will not be running.

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Union chiefs blamed First for the conflict, saying it had failed to make a “meaningful” response to the 2006 pay claim, which dated back to last March.

But First managing director Peter Iddon said the union was to blame - and said the “disappointing” strike threat would cause “major inconvenience”.

T&G regional organiser Ivan Crane said: “Our members have shown extreme patience and will take strike action as the very last resort. What we want to do is ensure our members receive fair pay and decent conditions for doing an extremely stressful job.”

He said 245 drivers were expected to take part in the strike, after a ballot found 81pc in favour of action.

Mr Crane added that there was “immense frustration” that First had failed to enter into “meaningful negotiations” over the pay claim, which he refused to reveal the details of.

“Of course we apologise for any inconvenience to the travelling public but any blame for that we believe must be put firmly at the door of First Eastern Counties.”

Mr Iddon said First had put forward a “realistic pay offer”, which was part of a wider change of conditions and working practices.

He said T&G was refusing to discuss the pay offer while the changes remained part of the overall debate.

“I am disappointed that the T&G has made the decision to take industrial action - action that will cause major inconvenience to bus users, our customers, in Norwich.

“The changes we are proposing will place the company on a firm financial footing and will help to ensure the long term security of all of our staff, as well as allowing us to continue to invest in the business.”

He added: “The principles of the proposal we have put forward have already been accepted by engineering staff throughout the company, as well as by drivers at all of our other bus depots in Norfolk and Suffolk; it is only the Norwich drivers who remain unwilling to consider any changes.”

First drivers staged their most recent walkout for a week in September 2005.

The feared traffic chaos failed to materialise as travellers turned to car sharing, alternative bus firms, trains or taxis to cope with the action.