Danny Piermattei started a solo mission to clean up his neighbourhood more than two decades ago - and he still hasn’t stopped. And after his example inspired the formation of an award-winning community group, now Danny and his group of volunteers are on a crusading fightback against flytippers who have been plaguing the area.
In the past two years, 45 flytippers have been apprehended in Stannington on the outskirts of Sheffield; a figure city council officials have told residents is a record.
Much of the success is down to the Action for Stannington group, with members searching through discarded rubbish dumped in fields and on rural lanes to find identifying details of those who have carried out illegal dumping.
It is just one of many activities the group is involved in, with helping young offenders, increasing recycling rates and even finding volunteers to run the local library among its many achievements.
The roots of Action for Stannington all began more than 20 years ago, almost by accident. Danny Piermattei, originally from Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy, moved to the area in the 1990s after marrying Yorkshire girl Samantha and started to clean up the neighbourhood on his own initiative.
Danny says: “What struck me was the amount of litter on the streets, lanes and footpaths. You have such a beautiful environment here on the outskirts of where the Peak District begins and I thought all the rubbish was heartbreaking.
“I went to buy a litter picker and some black sacks and started to tidy the foot paths. It got some publicity locally and all of a sudden I became rather famous for doing what I believed to be a civic duty.
“When I realised there was interest from local residents, I printed some leaflets. The amount of people who called was quite astonishing.
“There were so many people who wanted to do something but on their own felt a bit powerless. With the help of the local parish council, we set up Action for Stannington three years later.
“I was very reluctant at first as I didn’t want to create a club, I wanted something where everybody is welcome. I have been the chairman ever since. The people who started it with me are still with me.”
He says there are a core group of around 15 people involved in the group, which was started in 1996 and officially constituted three years later.
Danny says the fly-tipping issue is a good example of an issue where the group has made a difference by taking a practical approach to a local problem.
“We never moan, grumble or complain. Instead of actually targeting the mentality of bad ones, we try to bring along the vast majority of people who do care. The message is always positive, telling people we have caught 45 flytippers.
“We actually go through the bags of flytipping, which these days is mostly domestic waste as the bin collections are one week for rubbish, one for recycling in Sheffield. We find forms of identification like letters and pass on the information to the environmental officer and that is where our involvement ends. We work on the stupidity of the person fly-tipping who is leaving traces of their identity or address. The way the local authority deals with it is not to do with us, we don’t even ask for feedback on what has happened in different cases. It is a problem nationwide.”
Among other successes for the group in recent years has been encouraging local dog owners to pick up after their animals, distributing tens of thousands of doggy bags each year. “It has always been our principle that we never complain and always try to meet people half-way. Instead of blaming people, the idea is to provide facilities.”
On a grander scale, Danny and the group previously launched a pioneering project to encourage young offenders to work on improving Stannington Park, alongside local teenage volunteers. Danny says the use of young offenders was initially met with “a little bit of opposition” but the idea soon proved it worth as they helped to improve the park’s pavilion, which had been covered with graffiti and had its roof damaged by vandalism.
He says the project resulted in youngsters becoming “kind of guardians of the park environment”.
“Some young offenders wanted to stay as volunteers afterwards. You come to Stannington and it is not unusual to see a group of young people working and looking after local areas, which is very unusual in other places.”
Danny adds: “I have always seen a difference between being naughty and being nasty. If I hear of someone committing a fairly minor offence like spraying graffiti, I think probably the only difference between you and me when I was younger is that I was faster on my feet and escaped being caught!
“People let you down but give someone a second change or even a third chance, eventually people come around. It is a great feeling when you see people who were young offenders as adults with jobs. Sometimes it is like a teaching job.”
Danny, now 47, moved to Sheffield when he was 26 and worked for Sheffield Council’s social services for 18 years in addition to his volunteering work with Action for Stannington. He left the council two years ago and now runs his own care services.
The group has won multiple honours in the past including The Queen’s award for Voluntary Service, The Sheffield Street Force ‘Gold of Golds’ award, the Sheffield First for Environment Community award and the Duke of York’s Community Initiative Award, while Danny was personally awarded an MBE in 2009. He says he was surprised and delighted to be given the honour in recognition of his community work, while the MBE has helped open doors for the group when it comes to various projects.
“I got a letter from the Home Office and I actually thought it was trouble! I thought what have I done?”
Danny says he believes the success of Action for Stannington could easily be repeated in similar ways across Yorkshire and the rest of the country. “The same approach could easily be adopted by many, many other neighbourhoods.”
After the years of success, Danny says he found the EU referendum last year very difficult and the Leave vote actually made him consider resigning as chairman. “After 20 years of doing so much for my local community, I place I call home, to be labelled as a ‘foreigner’, that was really heartbreaking. I was in a bad mood for a period of time and I even contemplated and announced to my fellow committee members I was going to quit. I though if I am an outsider in your eyes, then just sort yourselves out.”
But he ended up deciding to stay on in the post. “I thought it would be a betrayal of the people of Stannington and I didn’t want to create my own version of Brexit in Stannington!”
Group helped save local library
Action for Stannington played an important role in ensuring the area’s library could remain open when it faced potential closure three years ago.
It was one of 16 libraries in Sheffield handed over to volunteers by the city council in the wake of Government cuts to local authority budgets.
Action for Stannington helped to recruit volunteers to run the site.
Danny says while the replacement of full-time library staff with volunteers in city libraries was controversial, it was important the local community stepped in.
“The alternative would have been not to have a library,” he says.
Dozens of people now volunteer their time to help run the facility in Stannington.