MSPs are back in Holyrood after their long summer recess. Hurrah! This week will be dominated by the psycho-drama of inducting Green ministers into the Scottish Government – a first for British politics – but the main event of the start of any new Holyrood term is the Programme for Government. This is Edinburgh’s equivalent of the Queen’s Speech, except there is no Black Rod slamming the door in anyone’s face and no awkward conversations between prime minister and leader of the opposition as they trudge their respective troops down the long corridor to the House of Lords to hear what the Queen has to say.

The Programme for Government (PfG) is, however, just as formulaic a set-piece. The First Minister announces what her government is actually going to do in the coming months (I know, edge-of-the-seat stuff), opposition MSPs say what they do not like about that, and then off they all go to the bar to exchange notes on their summer holidays, thinking how great it is finally to be back at it.

In recent years the PfG has been the dampest of squibs. There is no rule that things already announced should not be announced all over again and, all too often, the PfG has resembled a pic’n’mix of something old and something new, something borrowed and something, well, not blue – more green, I suppose.

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This is because our incumbent administration is not very interested in governing. Consumed by their conviction that Scotland can make something of herself only after leaving the United Kingdom to become an independent state, Nicola Sturgeon’s PfGs have, of late, been marked by a distinct absence of ambition. When baby boxes are the highlight in what a government with a £40 billion budget can do, you see what I mean about squibs.

But, instead of providing a more exciting alternative programme for government, Holyrood’s lacklustre opposition parties retreat all too quickly into their Nat-bashing comfort zones, doing nothing more taxing than pointing out all the things that are wrong with the SNP’s programme. For an MSP with a brain, the first week of term is a good one to miss. But let’s be upbeat. Maybe this year will be different.

Because, for pity’s sake, it’s not as if there isn’t plenty for a new government to be getting on with. Over on the Scotland Can website ( a whole series of proposals have been curated, showing what Scotland could be doing to improve itself, if only we had an administration with ambition.

Among the most interesting proposals are those penned by Alex Neil, once an SNP MSP and, indeed, a Cabinet minister back when Mr Salmond was in charge. Alex Neil was certainly an MSP with a brain. His vision of how to move from devolution to independence is very different from Nicola Sturgeon’s. For Mr Neil, devolution should be used to show Scots what we can do, even now, and getting them to imagine how much more we could do if we controlled everything ourselves.

As he points out, far too many of Scotland’s pressing problems – solutions to which fall squarely within devolved competence – have been shelved rather than addressed. On tax reform, housing, education and jobs, Holyrood has been far too timid. It’s high time for a more audacious approach, he says. I could not agree more.

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My quartet of priorities would be similar. I would highlight housing, localism, skills training and poverty. A PfG that put these matters front and centre would get my vote, no matter whose party colours the government flew. On housing, instead of tinkering around the edges, we need bold vision and leadership on house-building. We need to earmark sites for a fresh round of new towns. We need to reform our still-too-clunky planning law. We need to act on land value, rather than just talking about it. And we need a Cabinet Secretary at the heart of government whose job it is to work on nothing but housing.

On localism, which no Scottish Government has taken seriously since the dawn of devolution, we need a complete rethink of what local government is for, how it is organised, how it should be paid for, and what the relationship is between local government and the administration in Holyrood. It is shameful that, for more than 20 years, we have just drifted along without thinking about any of these things. All of the talk these past two decades has been about devolving power to Scotland – none of it has been about devolving power within Scotland, away from central government to local authorities and, even lower, to communities.

On skills training, we need to work much harder than we have hitherto to join colleges to the workplace, to understand both the strengths and the limitations of current apprenticeship schemes, and to harness the needs of employers to the provision of a skilled and agile workforce. We know that Brexit is changing the nature of the workforce; and we know that technology, innovation, and emerging consumer habits are changing the nature of the workplace. But whose job is it to tie these things together, and to make them sing?

And on poverty, perhaps the greatest of all these challenges, we need to understand that the problems of poverty will not be solved by sticking-plaster approaches. We need to get serious not only about the symptoms of poverty (not having enough money) but about its underlying drivers (why families are driven into poverty in the first place). There is no mystery about what these drivers are – they include addiction, low educational attainment, family breakdown, and poor health. But our anti-poverty strategies, such as they are, remain far too far removed from our health and education policies.

Scotland Can is an inspiring site. There is so much that needs doing, and so much that we could be doing about it, right now. Our Programme for Government should be about exactly that – what Scotland Can do. Now.

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