Only a month into the job and the housing minister has absorbed the government's line about having a 'vision' for urban regeneration. But when it comes to expounding the finer policy points, he seems less sure of himself.
"I am UP for this interview!" exclaims Keith Hill, flailing his long arms excitably. And it's hard not to believe the newly installed housing minister; his wide, toothy grin radiates enthusiasm. Whether he is fully up to speed on his new brief, however, is less clear. Hill's stock blocking shot on questions of policy is: "You have to remember, I've only been in the job for four weeks." This is played on average once every five minutes. Naturally, then, Hill would rather discuss "vision" than policy details.

This is alarming. Hill is to be one of the government's leaders in delivering the most ambitious housebuilding programmes since the Blitz. And it's not as if his boss, deputy prime minister John Prescott, has the reputation of being a policy anorak …

What is not in doubt is that Hill is a nice guy – so nice that an Office of the Deputy Prime Minister press officer swoons: "You wouldn't believe he was a government whip beforehand, would you?" Rude and bludgeoning he ain't, but Hill does possess that other key attribute of the whip – shrewdness. Asked if the government's much-delayed, much-criticised experiment with PFI-funded social housing has been a failure, Hill concedes that there have been past failings, then puts them behind him: "We began on this with rather ambitious expectations of the rapidity with which these schemes could be put in place. It is perfectly clear that there have been delays, but these programmes are beginning to move now. It is wrong to describe it as a failure."

Where Hill faces his biggest test – and one that could conceivably make his political reputation – is the regeneration of Thames Gateway. Prescott has earmarked the area as the site of 200,000 homes over the next 30 years, creating an urban community the size of Leeds. Local authorities in the Gateway, and in the three other areas picked for expansion in the South-east, have argued that they cannot begin to resource the programme on what the government has given them: £446m over the next three years.

Hill effectively ignores this point, preferring to wax rhapsodical about the fact that the spending programme lasts as long as it does: "Three years is the spending review period. It's of immense value in all public undertakings that they can be planned on the basis of a three-year programme, which is in marked contrast to the old days when spending was year-by-year and subject to fluctuations."

There have also been concerns that the government has ignored problems of water supply shortages in the Thames Gateway. A recent select committee report into Prescott's sustainable communities plan reads: "The committee was dismayed that the water companies were not involved in any of the discussions about the new housing targets for the South-east." Hill admits that he has no plans to meet with water companies in the near future. Instead, he has met twice with water minister Elliot Morley and discussed the borrowing of techniques from the Greenwich Millennium Village project in south-east London. This model has seen a 30% reduction in water usage, and Hill hopes to use it for the Thames Gateway.

The minister does guarantee that the government will announce shortly how it intends to spend the £446m. In his first month, Hill has sat on two Cabinet subcommittee meetings, chaired by Tony Blair, on where to allocate the cash. He also chaired the first 90-minute meeting of the London Gateway Strategic Board last week, which will find ways of developing the part of the Thames Gateway nearest to London.

That meeting seems to have been a success: "We looked at the beginnings of a masterplan for east London and are also looking at plans to bring in the east London Urban Development Corporation [which will oversee half of the Thames Gateway development]," says Hill. "A shadow board will be up and running in the autumn, with the real thing ready early next year."

Hill is also minister for the Millennium Dome and the surrounding Greenwich peninsular – a role he seems more comfortable with. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that London mayor Ken Livingstone, the government and the private developer, Meridien Delta, reached agreement on the project last month. So relaxed is Hill that he spills the beans on discussions between Anschutz (the leisure company that will turn the dome into a sports stadium), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Barbara Cassani, the businesswoman heading London's 2012 Olympic bid. "Anschutz is already talking to Cassani and the DCMS about the way in which the dome could feed into an Olympic bid," he says.

After 20-odd minutes talking about housing, it is refreshing to listen to Hill on an issue he has a firm grasp of. But he will need to brush up on regeneration and housing policy quickly if he is to going to safeguard his place in history.

Personal effects

The editor of Building lives around the corner from you in your Streatham constituency and always complains that your road is in much better condition than his. Why is that? He’s talking about the pavement! The locals all think that was done because of me, but it was all part of a masterplan.

What’s your favourite drink? Rioja. I like red wines.

What do you watch on television? I like the American crimmies, such as CSI, Law & Order and The Sopranos.

Where do you go on holiday? We’re going to Canada – Quebec and Nova Scotia – this summer.

Who is in your family? My wife and I have been married for 31 years. We don’t have any children, but do have 18 nephews and nieces. I feel that my family has made its contribution to the world population explosion.