Conveniently for Falconer, he inherits from his predecessor Nick Raynsford, a "very good basis on which to build the delivery process". This takes the form of a comprehensive housing policy, contained in a document entitled Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All. When it was published last December, deputy prime minister John Prescott hailed as "the first comprehensive review of housing for 23 years". Falconer's mission is to deliver on the report's proposals, including the renovation of one-third of dwellings in the social sector by 2004, and the rest by 2010.
Even more conveniently, Falconer inherits the money to do it: last July's spending review provides for expenditure on social housing construction to rise from £3.48bn this year to £4.41bn in 2003/4. "The money has been made available: £1.8bn for major repairs. We have got to ensure that it happens."
The other main chunk of the increased expenditure, up from £789m this year to £1.24bn in 2003/4, is the Housing Corporation's capital budget, earmarked mainly for new-build social housing. "I think that the new housebuilding part of the brief involves ensuring affordable houses are built in areas of high demand – mainly, but not exclusively, in London and the South-east."
Charles Falconer's political career started when he was appointed solicitor-general and ennobled after Blair was swept to power in 1997. His highest profile role to date was to take over the running and disposal of the Millennium Dome, and by the end of the millennium year, cries for him to be sacked had reached a climax. Although he still retains responsibility for the dome, these cries have abated while he gets to grip with his new job.
Despite the dome debacle, Falconer has a top barrister's reputation for absorbing a brief. And if he has a thick skin, he conceals it well, projecting none of the haughtiness of Blair's other legal-political crony Lord Irvine of Lairg. Slightly rotund with just a hint of an Edinburgh accent, and an admirable ability to speak without legal jargon or political evasions, the 49-year-old life peer cuts an affable figure.
Where Falconer's remit parts company from that of his predecessor is in ministerial responsibilities. Whereas Raynsford's role combined housing and construction, Falconer is responsible for housing, planning and regeneration in the reconstituted DTLR; construction has been hived off to the DTI.
As he outlines the new opportunities opened up by linking housing, planning and regeneration, Falconer gets into his stride. "One of the things we've got to try to deliver is ensuring that people are not prejudiced by the house in which they live or by the neighbourhood in which they live. We've got to address the issue of bricks and mortar, but we've got to address it in a wider context as far as regeneration is concerned."
This wider context embraces law and order, health, education and even the quality of public spaces. This is a subject he knows something about. As cabinet office minister before the last election, he played a part in overseeing the Social Exclusion Unit and its neighbourhood renewal strategy. A sizeable part of his department's spending pot is a neighbourhood renewal fund worth £900m over three years. He is also tipped to become the government's overall design champion.
Falconer's most urgent task is a review of planning. He was commissioned to undertake this by Blair last year and plans to publish a green paper this autumn. His concern is to navigate between the competing interests of efficiency and democracy – very likely by introducing legislation to streamline the development plan process.
As regards the impact of planning on housebuilding, Falconer shows little inclination to let housebuilders off the leash of the despised section 106 "planning gain" agreements, by which local authorities extract affordable housing from them. Just the reverse: "I believe that planning can produce more affordable housing by section 106 than it does at the moment," he says.
When it comes to the critical housebuilding target, Falconer does not accept that his eye might be taken off the ball, either by his planning and community responsibilities or by the ministerial divorce between housing and construction. In the face of widespread doubts about whether the government, the planning system or the construction industry will be able to cope with the extra work, he puts a touching faith in a mixture of private greed and the Egan agenda to sort things out. "I would have thought there was both commitment and self-interest on the part of the building industry that would make those targets deliverable," he comments.
With his dome experience etched into his memory, Falconer will need little reminding that if those housing targets are not delivered, it is his job that will be on the line – and that of his boss, Tony Blair.
Personal effectsWho is in your family?
My wife Marianne and four children aged between eight and 15.
Where do you live?
In a mid-19th-century semi-detached house in Canonbury, Islington.
What kind of car do you drive?
A Volkswagen Golf.
Where are you going on holiday?
To Crete for a nice holiday in the sun.
What are your current feelings about the dome?
I remain a great enthusiast: history will be kinder to the dome than politics has been. I am sure it will stay put in Greenwich.