Auckland's main bus fleet is due back on the roads this morning, but a week-long lockout of drivers has left community leaders seething over damage to the credibility of public transport in the region.

The five-month dispute between NZ Bus and its unionised workforce remains far from settled after 500 drivers and cleaners yesterday voted down a revised pay offer in a secret ballot by a 95 per cent margin.

Combined unions spokesman Karl Andersen described an Employment Relations Authority recommendation for settling the dispute as "a good basis" for returning to negotiations, even though the drivers had rejected it.

"Some progress has been made but there is still a long way to go," he said.

Mr Andersen would not disclose the recommendation, citing a confidentiality order by ERA chief James Wilson. But it is understood from other sources to include less money than previously offered by the company, although for a term of 30 months instead of three years.

The company had offered pay rises totalling $1.80 an hour in three instalments over that period, against a union demand for the same amount in two stages over 29 months, plus an increase in their overtime rate from time and a quarter to time and a half.

It is understood the new offer, included in Mr Wilson's recommendation, amounts to two instalments of 70c each. Despite the workers' rejection of the offer, they agreed to suspend notice of "work-to-rule" industrial action on condition the bus company lifted its lockout while continuing to work with Labour Department mediators to settle the row.

"We need a living wage but we also need to get the buses back on the road," said North Shore driver Brian Reierson after a fiery meeting accompanied at times by Scottish bagpipes and high-spirited Pacific singing.

He and other drivers expressed disgust at the company for allegedly locking out Auckland commuters and 875 unionised workers.

The company late yesterday agreed to suspend its lockout. Operations manager Zane Fulljames continued to "apologise sincerely for what I know has been a tremendous inconvenience for our customers and Auckland commuters".

NZ Bus has lost $1.1 million in subsidies from ratepayers and the Government for failing to provide the Auckland Regional Transport Authority and its passengers with contracted services over the past seven days, and workers are out of pocket by $1.15 million.

Although the company has continued to insist it was forced to lock out the workers by their notice of industrial action, Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett joined other community leaders last night in holding the Infratil subsidiary accountable for the week of disruption.

"Auckland is the loser ... There has been a huge credibility loss by the provider.

"All they have done is put us back a couple of years into the mindset that says every time there needs to be a negotiation we can't count on the buses being there - that's a huge loss."

Mr Barnett, who is also deputy chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, said he held the bus provider fully accountable for the disruption rather than its drivers.

Regional chairman Mike Lee believed the company was "taking an almost colonial approach" and feared it would take months if not years for bus patronage to recover in difficult political times for securing enough money for the region's transport needs.

Mr Fulljames said he was concentrating on getting the company's 700 Auckland buses back to work and would not respond to "unhelpful" comments.