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Dustman in white collar is face of the new flexible town hall

Over the next few years, council tax payers should enjoy more co-operation from the 1.5 million workers employed by local authorities. A historic agreement reached last night which brings manual workers' pay and conditions into line with white collar staff and paves the way for more flexibility in councils, should mean householders no longer face Kafkaesque bureaucracy when trying to right wrongs, lodge complaints, seek help, or ensure work gets done.

Union leaders and senior councillors are not promising the instant transformation of local authority workers into automatons, but say the agreement may end the "can't do" image of local councils.

The deal cuts working hours and includes a pay rise of at least 2.5 per cent. It offers a new minimum wage of pounds 4 an hour for the lowest-paid, an increase of 18p an hour from the present rates. Manual workers will have their working week cut by two hours to 37 hours to bring them into line with white collar staff.

One of the most important parts of the deal will be on the flexibility of working hours. No longer should it cost councils a fortune to open "one-stop shops" in the evening and at weekends so council-tax payers can access all departments.

Working time will be determined by the needs of residents as well as the convenience of the employees. Workers and local authorities will be expected to be more flexible. At such "shops", householders will be able to contact most departments from pest control to housing maintenance through one receptionist who will alsoaccept payments of council tax.

The pact will make it easier to ensure 24-hour cover for sheltered housing and longer opening hours for sports and leisure facilities. Caretakers may be called on to perform tasks normally carried out by craftsmen and through a new pay "spine" which will cover all employees, he can be rewarded for the extra skills. "At the moment, there is no incentive for staff to acquire new qualifications because the old pay structure is too rigid to reward them properly," one senior council official said.

In Birmingham, dustmen have been encouraged to keep an eye on the elderly; management believes yesterday's formula will encourage the as- sumption of such extra respon-sibilities. It is hoped council workers will see themselves as "access points" to all services available. Only the most skilled jobs are now seen as exempt from the new way of working.

Union leaders concede it could be the end of the "job's worth". No longer will council workers be able to reply: "It's more than my job's worth," to a request to carry out a job.