Community stalwart clocks up thousands of home visits in a bid to improve neighbourhoods
In the last 14 months Rotherham resident Michael Sylvester has spent Sunday mornings pacing the streets of his community to learn the facts about the troubles faced by 3,000 of his neighbours.
He still has another 800 homes to cover and the process has not been as quick as he originally anticipated – because as his presence has become better known, he has found an increasing number of people wanting to spend time to share their concerns.
But he is determined to complete the process, leaflet dropping the streets he will visit in advance so residents can make themselves know if they have issues to discuss.
His actions may sound like a candidate on the election trail, but Mr Sylvester – who has served on Rotherham Council in the past – began his marathon when May 2020 remained well beyond the horizon and even now states he has yet to decide on whether to launch a bid to become a councillor.
If he did, it would be in the area where he lives as one of his criticisms is that “unconscious bias” means many members of Rotherham Council do not live in the communities they represent, particularly the more disadvantaged areas.
The laborious process of covering the the communities of Dalton, East Herringthorpe and Thrybergh, on a street by street basis has resulted in some important lessons being learned, he said.
That includes examples of the real impact of Universal Credit, with one resident left with £1.10 in their purse to cover ten days because of the delay in payments to new claimants.
He believes the one to one contact is increasingly important as communities change, with less interaction between neighbours as traditional social habits change.
“East Herringthorpe is one of the most deprived communities in Rotherham, but there is no tenants and residents group, or community forum,” he said.
“There is one community centre for an estate of 1,200 homes. I don’t feel councillors get to know the area and what is needed on the ground.”
His answer has been to take action himself, such as gathering public opinion on proposed bus changes and taking that information to Thrybergh Parish Council, helping them to formulate a stance for feedback to consultations.
He has also helped set in motion a dialogue which has led to the creation of a heritage group in East Herringthorpe, following a conversation with a resident who wanted to put something into the community.
“I have found some really brilliant people who want to do something for their neighbourhood. But without community structures, they are doing bits of what they can, here and there,” he said.
“Doing the doorstep surgeries lets you find these people. Many have ideas, but don’t know how to implement them,” he said.
He has also found that residents encouraged to get involved in one element of community work, such as litter picking, then become open to the idea of taking part in other community activities.
“You get a relationship established with people, sometimes to play a small background role, sometimes more,” he said.