Birmingham's main roads have been likened to Tibetan graveyards, with litter flapping about in the wind.

The transportation scrutiny committee heard yesterday that the council is in danger of losing a £2.7 million Government handout because so many streets and open spaces are dirty.

Just over a quarter of all public land is below an acceptable level of cleanliness, according to the latest performance indicators.

The council will miss out on a hefty cash grant if it cannot reduce to 12 per cent by March 2008 the amount of land deemed to have unacceptably high levels of litter and other rubbish. The figure at the moment is 26 per cent.

The prospect of missing the target will be embarrassing for the council's Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which identified street cleaning as a major priority when taking office in June 2004.

The disclosure came as the committee heard details of demarcation rules in the street cleansing unit, resulting in crews not being obliged to pick up all of the litter they come across.

Tightly drawn contracts dating to 1998 mean that different council depart-ments are responsible for clearing litter from roads and pavements, grass verges and car parks. Road cleaners do not remove litter from grass verges, because they are the responsibility of the housing department.

Litter is picked only once a year from bushes, by a different team responsible for horticulture.

Coun Martin Mullaney (Lib Dem Moseley & Kings Heath) described the situation as an organisational mess. He said: "There is so much demarcation - one person picks the litter off pavements, another off grass verges, no one picks the litter from underneath bushes -hence the reason the central reservations of our major roads sometimes resemble Tibetan graveyards with litter flapping about in the wind."

There are 24 different street cleaning activities, which the council insists require specific staff and management training. They include city centre cleaning, channel sweeping, emptying litter bins, fly-tipping removal, removal of dead animals, needle removal, graffiti removal, removal of abandoned vehicles, cleaning housing estates and cleaning shop fronts.

Ian Coghill, director of community safety and environmental services, said: "Street cleaning sounds simple, but in fact it is a complicated thing. You can't expect a street sweeper to just remove needles."

Mr Coghill said he was confident the council would meet its targets. "We have plenty of time and we will be there. Just watch," he told the committee.

Attempts to reorganise the system are under way, where crews would be based on a ward-by-ward basis and responsible for picking up all litter in a defined geographical area. But Mr Coghill admitted the change could not be implemented without union agreement.

He added: "I can get the workforce to do whatever the council wants it to do. It's simply a question of managing resources."

He urged the committee not to pay too much attention to demarcation issues, adding that crews often picked up litter in areas they were not contracted to cover.

Mr Coghill added: "They are very hard working. A lot of people will stand there and watch them for a long time to see them do something wrong.

"The demand for resources is increasing all the time. Businesses used to trade from 9 to 5, now it is much longer. We have driven smokers on to the streets and they are throwing their finished cigarettes away. Takeaways used to be fish and chips, now everyone is having takeaways and throwing the containers away."