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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Remember Cardboard City?

May 19 2013
© Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos
The current clean-up of Waterloo has echoes of the 1998 operation in the Bull Ring


A joint operation between police, council workers and a group of local businesses, launched at the beginning of March, has seen a large scale clean-up operation at the former site of one of Britain’s most infamous rough sleeping hot-spots near London’s Waterloo station.

Led by the South Bank Patrol (SBP) – a group working for a consortium of businesses in the area and awarded a range of police powers – the ‘clean sweep’ operation aimed to move on rough sleepers from the subways around the Imax cinema.

“As a result of the operation,” said an SBP press release, “all rubbish and cardboard boxes were removed, all contaminated areas were washed down and information about nine rough sleepers was collected and shared with Lambeth’s Street Outreach Team.”

The SBP are managed by the South Bank Employers Group with the aim of gentrifying the area over the last 15 years: “transforming a bleak and hostile area into one of the most exciting destinations in the UK,” according to the organisation’s website.

The episode had echoes of a far larger clean-up operation carried out in 1998 in the same area – which was then a semi-permanent encampment of rough sleepers known as ‘Cardboard City’.

The large traffic roundabout which is now the home of the Imax was once the centre of the biggest single group of homeless people in the country, with more than 200 people (four pictured) sleeping out there every night at its peak in the mid-1980s.

Cardboard City became an emblem of the nation’s failure to help the homeless – a starkly visible contrast with the glittering towers of London’s financial centre a mile to the north-east. Under the Thatcher government, Cardboard City became ‘a symbol of heartlessness’, according to a lead article in the Independent newspaper.

Rising property prices, high levels of unemployment and changes to government policy that led to the closure of around 5,000 places in London hostels all contributed to a sharp increase in homelessness.

Cardboard City was the most visible sign of this rapidly growing national crisis. By the time it was finally closed – after the high court granted an eviction order against those who remained – the ‘bull ring’ was home to a small group of 30 or so who vowed never to leave. “I may not have a house but this is my home,” said Tom, one of the city’s final residents in a newspaper interview at the time. “These people are my family, and I’m not going anywhere.”

So 15 years and one £20m cinema complex later, authorities are still struggling to prevent rough sleepers from settling near the heart of Cardboard City.

• Did you ever sleep out in Cardboard City in the bad old days? We’d love to hear your memories for the 15th anniversary of its closure. Send your messages into