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Newts threaten to scupper Cate Blanchett’s £5m dream mansion plans

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Actress Cate Blanchett’s plans to build nearly 100 solar panels to power her £5m mansion risks being scuppered - by the presence of newts.

The Lord of the Rings star, 53, and her playwright husband Andrew Upton, 56, want to install a solar panel array and extend the plant room in the 13-acre grounds of Highwell House.

The couple are now seeking planning permission to build 90 panels on agricultural land to the south of the main Victorian mansion in Crowborough in East Sussex.

But an ecological survey has identified ‘mitigation’ that is required to protect the great-crested newts (GCN) and other species that would be affected by the digging of ‘trenches’ to house the connecting cables.

And they must now seek an additional ‘District Licence’ to avoid being in breach of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

This law makes it an offence for anyone to “intentionally or recklessly disturb, harm or kill great crested newts, or damage, destroy or obstruct their breeding and resting places.”

Blanchett bought the home in 2015 for an estimated £5m. It had been abandoned for more than a decade after once being home to Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Doctor Who actor Tom Baker.

Plans for Highwell House, Crowborough (Wealden District Council  / SWNS)
Plans for Highwell House, Crowborough (Wealden District Council / SWNS)

It has since undergone major refurbishment. Her plans to build an outdoor pool were approved in March last year while in 2021 she was also given the go-ahead to build a home office/studio and gallery in the garden.

Her latest application is being considered by Wealden District Council with a decision expected next month.

No formal objections - including from neighbouring residents have so far been lodged.

Planning documents shows the 2.5m high panels will be arranged in two rows and are intended to generate sustainable energy supply to the main house and outbuildings on the site.

But the ecology report - commissioned by Ms Blanchett and her husband themselves, has raised issues that need to be addressed.

Ecosupport Ltd said it was instructed to identify any potentially important ecological features that may be affected by the proposed development.

An ecological survey has identified ‘mitigation’ that is required to protect the great-crested newts (Wealden District Council  / SWNS)
An ecological survey has identified ‘mitigation’ that is required to protect the great-crested newts (Wealden District Council / SWNS)

After undertaking a number of surveys, they found a ‘high potential’ for impact on the newts with potential impact also possible on reptile species, foraging and commuting bats and badgers and breeding and nesting birds.

The report stated: “In the absence of any mitigation measures, the proposed development is anticipated to result in certain adverse impacts.”

As part of the scheme, temporary trenches are also needed to connect the electrical supply to the plant room and cable installation to the panels.

The report added: “Several waterbodies were identified within 250m of site. The proposals are to be undertaken within the amber impact zone for GCN under the District Licencing scheme, which determines there is suitable habitat and a high likelihood of GCN presence.

“Taking into consideration the presence of GCN records within 1km, and all of the above, the site is considered to be of High Potential for GCN.

“The proposed works will require the temporary removal of grassland habitat to allow for ‘Trench 2’ to be created, and for the PV array to be installed.

“The grassland on site is of potential for terrestrial GCN, which are confirmed as present within 500m of the site and the site is within the amber impact zone for GCN.

“Additionally, the grassland on site does hold some suitability for common reptile species.

“Therefore in the absence of mitigation an adverse impact is certain.”

This image released by Focus Features shows Cate Blanchett in a scene from Tár (© 2022 Focus Features, LLC.)
This image released by Focus Features shows Cate Blanchett in a scene from Tár (© 2022 Focus Features, LLC.)

Blanchett and her husband have agreed to apply for a special ‘District Licence’ to allow work to be carried out. Under the licence habitat compensation will also provided by the Newt Conservation Partnership.

The ecology report added: “The proposed works will require the creation of excavations. This may lead to badgers and other mammals becoming trapped or injured during the works. Therefore, in the absence of mitigation, an adverse impact is possible.

“During construction, any excavations on site should be covered nightly and/or include a suitable escape ramp for the protection of wildlife, eg, badgers and hedgehogs.

“The proposed works could result in disturbance of nesting birds and damage to their nests if conducted during the nesting season as the works are in close proximity of suitable breeding and nesting habitat.”

The celebrity couple’s agent Whaleback Planning & Design said in a statement to support the application: “Overall, the proposal represents a small-scale renewable energy system that would contribute to the UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

“The proposal complies with the national planning policy in supporting the transition to a low carbon future. It would provide a sustainable and low-carbon supply of renewable energy to the main dwelling and associated outbuildings on the site.

“The visual impact of the proposed solar installation has been fully considered through a Landscape Visual Assessment and the proposed layout has been carefully designed and positioned so as to conserve the landscape character of the area, and views from local vantage points along with additional screening planting via nature hedgerow improvements and scrub.

“The proposal would enhance biodiversity and landscape value through the establishment of this additional planting as well as maintaining its existing use as grazed grassland around and within the solar array.”