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Grant Shapps Talks Twitter, Today Programme Bust-Ups And Why The Government Are Doing More For Housing

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GRANT SHAPPS
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"I am delighted to be the man from Dyno-Rod in this instance," grins Grant Shapps when mulling over the nickname reportedly given to him by David Cameron.

"The prime minister and I absolutely share the ambition of unblocking housing. We see this as being a blocked market. Lenders aren't lending so builders can't build so buyers cant buy," he says.

While it may not be the most glamorous of nicknames, the workman like title is one that Shapps will no doubt wear with pride as it indicates his stock remains high within the inner circle.

The 43-year-old housing minister is speaking to the Huffington Post UK in his Commons office the day after George Osborne delivered his Autumn Statement against a backdrop of gloomy growth figures and as around two million public sector workers were out on strike.

"When people who strike today stop and think about it they should reflect on two things," he says. "Their pension is better and more secure than what a person in the private sector may get and the person in the private sector has had to work harder today in order to secure child care and so on."

"If you went on strike today you cost someone who works in the private sector ... you've taken it [money] from them."

On November 21 Shapps unveiled his housing strategy. Most eye catching of the proposals is a mortgage guarantee scheme that he hopes will encourage lenders to offer 95% mortgages to first time buyers.

The programme is designed to guarantee lenders against their losses if borrowers fail to repay their loans.

"People want to be able to own a home without relying on the bank of mum and dad, this changes the game for that generation of people," he says. "We want to help people in their 20s and 30s get back on the housing ladder."

"We now think we've put aside resources for 100,000 people, this is going to be an amazing opportunity for people who think they will never have the opportunity their parents had."

And he rejects any suggestion that he risks re-creating the practice of offering sub-prime mortgages that led to the crisis in the US housing market. "Absolutely not. Sub-prime was 120%, 125%, sub-prime wasn't 95%. They still have to be a good bet for a mortgage."

"We are not looking to recreate a boom. We are not looking to recreate sub-prime."

Ministers have yet to agree what value homes will fall under the scheme that he expects to be rolled out in this Parliament, but Shapps foresees it being at the level "most people would find acceptable". It will not be used to "support mansions".

But what about the accusation that the Autumn Statement did not do enough to address the housing crisis? The National Housing Federation for example, would have liked to have seen an extension of the stamp duty freeze and said Osborne "ignored" housing.

"For goodness' sake," he sighs. "It's one week on from the biggest housing strategy document that this or the previous government has launched.

"You'd have to go back decades to see anything bigger in housing. Probably to [Harold] Macmillan's time."

Unfortunately for Shapps the details of his scheme were somewhat buried under the weight of the on-air scrap he had with John Humphrys on the Today programme later in the week.

Statistics published the day after the launch of the strategy revealed only 454 affordable homes had been built in England in the first six months of the financial year. Down 97% on the same period of 2010.

Shapps was accused of bringing forward the launch of his strategy to avoid awkward questions about the statistics. He was also charged with pulling out of a previous interview on Today at the last minute - he insists he was not booked in and was on a train at the time.

The ensuing squabble with Humphrys overshadowed any discussion of the new plan and led to Shapps' name trending on his beloved Twitter - for all the wrong reasons.

Shapps says if the BBC had done "three seconds" of analysis on the figures they would have realised the low number just marked the point where Labour's old programme ended and his new programme began.

"It was clearly a put up job by the opposition who waved these figures in front of the BBC who fell for it," he says.

"Wind forward six months and we will see exactly the same thing in reverse. I hope they'll have me on the Today programme to say 'my goodness look at these figures they are 95% up!".

And the accusation that he launched his strategy the day before the figures came out? "Completely, utterly, untrue".

"These housing statistics come out every single day. Not only did we not think it, we hadn't seen the figures, we hadn't put any thought process into the figures, we don't think the figures are meaningful".

"One of the things that makes people cynical about politics is when the media trump a story out of nothing," he adds.

Grant Shapps: Housing strategy announcement "absolutely correct" (mp3)

Shapps has held the housing brief since 2007 and is frequently tipped for greater things. Most recently his name has been in the frame to replace Baroness Warsi as chairman of the party at the next reshuffle.

And if engagement is a core role of that job then Shapps certainly likes to get involved on Twitter.

"I love it," he says. "It's really simple. You cut out the all of the bureaucracy of the civil service who want to have control over their minister and know what the minster is doing. It's freedom."

"It's enormously liberating. I may have more Twitter followers than the department," he says. "Lets fact check this." At this point Shapps leaps across his office to check who is ahead in the Twitter stakes, @grantshapps or his civil service colleagues at @CommunitiesUK.

After some clicking Shapps announces the official DCLG account has around 28,000 followers while he has over 33,000. "I'm not in direct competition of course," he adds.

Shapps also admits he can not help but use Twitter to engage with rivals as well as supporters, including former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott who held the housing brief under Tony Blair and whose leg he likes to pull.

Reminding him of a recent incident where Prescott, famed for his mangling of the English language, pointed out a spelling mistake in one of Shapps' tweets, the housing minister says he will concede that minor point.

"I hang my head in shame. To be corrected by John Prescott marks a new low in my political career," he smiles in mock horror.

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