Changing role of Council

Changing role of Council

Role reversals

The City of Sydney provides a wide range of community services and facilities to residents, business and tourists but many of its original functions have been taken over by the state government and its authorities.

The police

One of the reasons the City was formed was to set up the local police force, which would be paid by the City and controlled by the colony. After four years of failing to levy this unpopular rate, the City passed control back to the government so that the police force ultimately became a state rather than a local matter.

Policeman on point duty in King Street in 1951. Policeman on point duty in King Street in 1951.(SRC7023)


In the 19th century, markets formed an important part of Sydney's commercial sector, and tolls raised from running the wholesale and retail markets was a large part of revenue. They were also unhygienic and unruly places where unscrupulous trading practices were common. Hence many of the earliest City by-laws were attempts at maintaining law and order.

Initially the markets were located in the centre of town, but rising land prices and changing transport methods eventually forced them further out. In 1945 the state government assumed control of the fish market, and later in 1968 the State Marketing Authority was formed to take over the fruit and vegetable markets. Several of Sydney's old city market buildings survive under other guises.

The George Street markets expanded in 1858, deteriorated by 1891 and were replaced by the Queen Victoria Market Building in 1898. While this was still called a market building it was really arcades of high-class shops, because the City fathers had worked out that this would create more revenue.

By the 1950s there was talk of demolishing the building, but by 1988 it was restored and remains one of the City's most imposing heritage buildings.

A fish market was established at Forbes Street, Woolloomooloo in 1872, and upgraded in 1893, before moving in 1914 to the Sydney Municipal Markets at Haymarket. What is now known as Paddy's market was originally the Sydney Municipal Markets. They were built between 1909 and 1914 and were the source for all wholesale fresh produce in the city, containing vegetable and fruit markets, a fish market, poultry market and cold storage.


The City's attempts at road making, drainage and repair were often less than successful and by the 1870s numerous roads remained unformed, pot-holed or prone to washaways. From the 1880s, major streets were overlaid with woodblocks. This surface was durable but slippery, and bitumin was soon used. In the 1930s the City's laboratory at Wattle Street, Pyrmont pioneered methods of dry-rolling concrete, creating a surface that could be laid cold and used almost immediately. Newer asphalt techniques did not catch on until a massive street upgrading program after World War II.

In 1925 the state government took control of some roads and left some in local control.

Trams, pedestrians, horse carriages and cars at the corner of George and King Streets, 1920 (SRC6019) Trams, pedestrians, horse carriages and cars at the corner of George and King Streets, 1920 (SRC6019)


In 1841 the streets of Sydney were first lit by gas, provided by the Australian Gaslight Company. The City left it to the private company to provide Sydney's lighting for the next half-century.

In 1904 when the Lady Mayoress switched on the first electric street lights at Pyrmont Power Station, the City took on the provision of electricity to both private customers and suburban councils.

In the 1920s there was an explosion in domestic consumption as people enthusiastically acquired more new-fangled electrical gadgets and the City's huge Electricity Department was unable to keep up with the demand.

This, combined with a corruption scandal at Bunnerong Power Station, led to the creation of Sydney County Council in 1935 to generate and supply electricity. This later became the New South Wales Electricity Commission.

  Pyrmont Power Station, 1919. (NSCA CRS 51/4715)   Pyrmont Power Station, 1919. (NSCA CRS 51/4715)

Water and sewerage

Until it became polluted from over-use in the 1820s, the freshwater Tank Stream was the town's water supply. By 1839 convicts working under John Busby had carved out water tunnels from a swamp in the City's east. This was called Busby's Bore. Pipes conveyed water to standpipes at various parts of the town and water carters sold water at one shilling a cask.

The City had connected about 72 private houses to the main water pipes by 1844 but their inability to improve the supply was a major reason for their sacking in 1853.

In later years dams were built at Botany and Bunnerong, reservoirs at Paddington and Woollahra, and the water mains were gradually extended beyond the City's boundaries. Supply was often erratic, water was not always pure, and in dry periods it was rationed. The sewerage system was even worse with raw sewage being discharged directly into Sydney Harbour.

After a series of near catastrophes, fraud allegations and investigations, legislation in 1880 enabled the construction of a new dam on the Upper Nepean and a sewage outfall at Bondi. All this was beyond the City's capacity to administer and in 1888 these responsibilities went to the new Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board.

An open sewer runs beside houses at Little Chambers Street, Ultimo. c. 1906 An open sewer runs beside houses at Little Chambers Street, Ultimo. c. 1906 (CRS 51/3944)

Rubbish and rats

Garbage disposal is one function the City is still responsible for but it was not always a priority. In the 19th century garbage was dumped indiscriminately until the bubonic plague in 1900 pushed the City into action.

Garbage was incinerated or tipped at Moore Park, then at Pyrmont or punted out to sea. There was public outcry in 1929 when spring tides washed up assorted debris including rats and butcher's offal onto city beaches.

Waste management is now administered according to various state acts, including the NSW Waste Minimisation and Management Act 1995, which established the Inner City Waste Board.

Council's punt at Buckle's Wharf, Pyrmont, 1913 (CRS 80/25) Council's punt at Buckle's Wharf, Pyrmont, 1913 (CRS 80/25)


The City's by-laws have always covered public health, but the general level of understanding of what was required to keep a city healthy was limited. The City Health Officer was a part-time employee with an independent medical practice who did little more than offer advice to aldermen.

The Nuisance Inspector oversaw a range of regulations from markets inspections to kite flying and house-to-house inspections.

By the early 20th century there was also involvement in infant health protection and maternal education.

In 1896 the first state public health act was passed. This was not a case of the state taking over. It was more an expansion by all authorities into the new realm of public health concerns.

Fowler's Tip, Camperdown Fowler's Tip, Camperdown, from a series of photographs relating to the plague. 1922. CRS 51/3995

City planning

In 1879, the City gained control over insanitary and unsafe buildings but it had to share this power with a government-appointed City Improvement Board.

When bubonic plague threatened Sydney in 1900, the City was held responsible for failing to eradicate the rats blamed for the public health scare. As a result the state government took over the City's health powers and resumed the wharves and slums of The Rocks and Millers Point, placing them under control of the newly formed Sydney Harbour Trust.

From 1957, the City's skyline changed dramatically when the 1912 restriction on building heights was lifted. But the City's town-planning efforts had little effect on Sydney's rampant development. In 1964 ultimate authority was vested in the State Planning Authority, which was empowered to overturn local development decisions.

The 1960s and 1970s saw profound physical change as landmarks such as Anthony Hordens and the Theatre Royal were demolished. Many felt that the Sydney they knew was disappearing too fast. And there were development pressures beyond the city centre as well.

In 1988 the Central Sydney Planning Committee, including both Council aldermen and ministerial appointees, was set up to approve major development applications. This removed significant decisions from the City. However, the role of the Land and Environment Court in overturning decisions of the City and of the Central Sydney Planning Committee is currently the subject of considerable criticism and comment.

Part of resumption at Grose Street, Camperdown, behind the University of Sydney, in 1919. Part of resumption at Grose Street, Camperdown, behind the University of Sydney, in 1919. (Camperdown was absorbed into the City of Sydney for a number of years in 1908) (CRS 51/20/2083)

The AMP building, Sydney's first skyscraper, under construction around 1960. The AMP building, Sydney's first skyscraper, under construction around 1960. The building was officially opened in 1962 (CCS CRS 48/1394)

Last updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2012