In the latest example of the housing secretary intervening in planning on design grounds, we talk to Colin Muller of Muller Property Group, about the Sandbach development in Cheshire East which has been called in

Colin Muller, owner and founder of Cheshire-based Muller Property Group, is straight talking when it comes to secretaries of state for housing, describing the current role holder, Michael Gove, as “overzealous” and “self-important.” He is preparing to “do battle” with Gove over a planning appeal on which the secretary of state is set to make a decision, having ostensibly taken issue with its design, but Muller is bullish about his chances of winning.

“This is not the first time I have done battle with a secretary of state. We had a very serious, long running saga regarding a site in Nantwich between 2012 and 2020, where we had not one but three successive High Court challenges,” says Muller, referring to a 34-acre site near Crewe, which went through a number of appeals before the first phase was green lit. 


Colin Muller, owner and founder of Muller Property Group

“We saw off and defeated three secretaries of state. We saw Eric Pickles, we saw Sajid Javid, and finally Robert Jenrick approved the [first 189-home phase of the Nantwich] site in July 2020. It started out with similar issues of meddling and calling in.”.

He adds: “I think we are the only business in the UK to win three successful challenges in the High Court. I pretty much had to write a cheque for £150,000 in costs each time we went in.”

Muller Property Group was founded by Muller 20 years ago and today it has an estimated turnover of £2.7m. Now, the housebuilding boss is preparing to fight his case again against the secretary for housing in circumstances his legal team describe as “extremely surprising”.

Earlier this month, we reported that following Gove’s attempt to block a 165-home Berkeley Homes scheme in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on the grounds that the design was “generic” – a controversial decision he looks set to rethink – he is now set to make decisions on housing developments in Leamington Spa and Cheshire East. 

The latter is the Muller Property Group’s project for 160 dwellings on five hectares of land south of Old Mill Road, Sandbach in Cheshire East. The plans date back to 2013 and have been subject to revisions as part of a resubmission and appeals process. Part of the scheme for Sandbach – for a care home and 85 dwellings – received full planning permission on appeal in 2020. Outline planning permission for up to 200 residential units was granted by two senior planning inspectors. However, the plan was called in on appeal by the secretary of state for housing in April, with an inquiry set to take place in September. 

This is an unusual move. Fewer than 1% of appeal decisions in 2007 were recovered by the secretary of state, according to the Ministerial Statement of 30 June 2008. According to Muller’s legal team’s examination of the Planning Inspectorate website, only 17 appeals were recovered out of 16,928 appeal decisions issued in 2021.

“There can be no grounds under the planning system for Michael Gove as secretary of state to jump into [this] scheme,” Muller says. “Two previous senior inspectors have granted outline planning permission and detailed planning permission on this site. All of the issues of character, design, appearance, aesthetics and quality of the scheme had previously been in front of [inspectors].” 

>>See also: Design codes are coming, but will they deliver?


Muller is forthright about the fact he thinks the reason for Gove’s intervention is on design grounds as it was with regard to the Berkeley Homes scheme in Tunbridge Wells. “I can only assume that somewhere the secretary of state has got a radar tuned to any appeal that has any design narrative in the reasons for refusal or appeal. And I think that’s what’s happened here,” he says.

“This is a Conservative parliamentary constituency under Fiona Bruce and despite that fact Cheshire East council is now 50% Labour councillors. I think we’ve got a secretary of state here who’s flexing his muscles to show that he’s not just looking at the South [i.e. Tunbridge Wells], but he’s also looking at the North, too.”

He adds: ”There’s no accountability of course for a secretary of state, because when he does call in an application for his own determination, there’s no timescale on him to give a decision.”

In documents seen by Housing Today, the reason given for Gove’s intervention in the Sandbach development is that he “considers the appeal involves proposals for residential development… which would significantly impact on the government’s objective to secure a better balance between housing demand and supply and create high quality, sustainable, mixed and inclusive communities.”

On 11th May 2023, legal representatives for Muller Property Group wrote to the planning inspectorate expressing their “extreme surprise” at the decision to recover the appeal, pointing to various details including that the site has already been subject to “outline approval” on appeal in 2014 following a four-day inquiry which considered “the effect of the proposal on landscape character, visual amenity and the countryside setting of Sandbach, whether the site is located to maximise the use of sustainable travel modes and whether the impact on the highway network would be significant.” 

It added that the 2014 appeal was not recovered by the then secretary of state and points to examples of two further schemes on the same site which were awarded full planning. “Whilst it is accepted that the secretary of state has a discretion in his consideration whether to recover an appeal, that discretion should be exercised consistently, fairly and with clear justification,” the letter reads, adding: “[We are] at a loss to understand what basis there is for the secretary of state to recover the appeal.”

Muller, who says he and his team are busily preparing for their appeal, will present all the evidence when the inquiry takes place in mid-September. “There are no issues of substance, purely matters of minor detail. What on earth is the secretary of state doing intervening in matters of minor detail as opposed to significant issues of principle?” he says. 


A mock up image of the proposed Sandbach development in Cheshire East

“Gove needs to keep his nose out of local matters. He would be better off spending the important time in his role in a substantial overhaul of the planning system across the UK. We have got a system that is fundamentally flawed.”

A spokesperson for Cheshire East Council said: “The council is aware that the secretary of state has called in a planning appeal regarding a proposal by Muller Property Group for around 160 homes on land south of Old Mill Road, Sandbach. We will await due process through the appeal hearing, later in the year, and look forward with interest to a subsequent decision by the secretary of state.”

A spokesperson for The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said in a statement: ”This planning appeal has been recovered for decision on behalf of the secretary of state. A decision will be issued in due course. As such it would not be appropriate to comment further.”


A mock up image of the proposed Sandbach development in Cheshire East