Nexus, Tyne and Wear's passenger transport executive, is quietly going about the process of un-deregulating their local bus services.
Last year, it announced plans to introduce a Quality Contracts Scheme covering around 340 different bus routes in Tyne and Wear. This would transfer responsibility for almost everything - branding, fare structure, ticket prices - from the area's privately-owned bus companies to Nexus, and would be the biggest shake-up to the local bus market in 25 years.
Under a Quality Contracts Scheme (QCS), says Nexus, bus users would benefit from a high-frequency core of services which would be tied-in with Metro (as it was before deregulation), simplified fares, full and proper consultation on changes to routes, and a guaranteed standard of service.
Crucially, Nexus would determine where and when buses ran and how much they cost, with the private operators running the services under contract. Buses wouldn't be allowed to operate within Tyne and Wear except within the contract scheme, thus ending the deregulated market that has existed since 1986.
For the moment, Nexus are quietly and informally consulting people on their QCS proposals prior to making a formal start on its introduction. A number of other PTE's are also pursuing the QCS idea, with some either already part way down the road and others still considering them.
But here's the rub. Given that deregulation of local bus services was a major political landmark in Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister, and given that we have a Prime Minister of a remarkably similar hue today, isn't this all rather pointless? Surely Cameron would never allow one of Maggie's greatest triumphs - and the whole free market concept - to be abandoned in this way?
Well, not necessarily. To begin with, Cameron's Conservatives seem quite happy to let their Lib Dem colleagues loose on the transport portfolio – possibly on the basis that it has been the graveyard of many a parliamentary career in the past – especially it's an area which definitely interests the Lib Dems. Add to that the fact that legislation to unpick bus deregulation is already on the statue book, although it has never actually been used. That means no new bills taking up valuable parliamentary time.
A third point is that the current system isn't exactly flavour of the month anyway. The recent Competition Commission report into the deregulated bus industry made it pretty clear that, at best, there was virtually no competition and that this was clearly having a detrimental effect on passengers. The report, I think, stopped short of accusing bus companies of operating a virtual cartel aimed at extracting as much money as they could from passengers and local councils alike. But not far short.
Besides, Cameron's Conservatives wouldn't lose many votes on Tyneside if it all went pear-shaped. A Tory voter on the banks of the Tyne is about as rare as a taxi on a wet night.
All of which might suggest that this mad idea of de-constructing a piece of prime Thatcherite legislation is perhaps not quite as far-fetched as some might think.
How it will all be received on Tyneside is less certain. Obviously, passengers will like it as it will guarantee a better, more accountable and more reliable service, as will local councillors who currently pour around £62m of subsidies into the coffers of the local bus companies yet have absolutely no control over what they do with it. The bus companies themselves are likely to be hostile, even if the whole system is virtually identical to one most of them already operate under in London.
Of course, it might be that the threat of a Quality Contracts Scheme being imposed might just be enough to stimulate the bus companies to negotiate and come up something a little less than a full QCS but a lot more than the status quo.
Time will tell.