Trade union leaders are backing the £2 billion privatisation of Birmingham's entire highways network.

Unions representing about 800 city council workers who would be affected by the transfer of responsibility for roads, pavements and street lighting to a private sector consortium withdrew outright opposition after months of negotiations.

Council leaders have agreed to ask the four consortia bidding for the Highways Private Finance Initiative to sub-contract to the existing local authority workforce.

It would mean, if backed by the Government, that the workers would continue to to be employed by the city council, ending fears of wage cuts.

The unions had at one stage threatened widespread industrial action if the PFI went ahead.

Steve Foster, chairman of the joint trade unions, said new legislation meant the council could sub-contract staff and still meet Government "value for money" regulations.

Mr Foster said the unions were in a "100 per cent better position" now than was the case a year ago when negotiations were under way with the council's former Labour administration.

He praised the council's Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition, which has been in power since June 2004.

"The leadership are listening to our views and taking them into account.

"They are never going to give us everything we want, obviously, but they are giving us a reasonable opportunity to explain our views. It's a breath of fresh air, to be honest," Mr Foster added.

Four consortia are bidding for a 25-year contract to run city highways.

The winner will be responsible for funding a massive repairs and improvement programme.

Cabinet Human Resources spokesman Coun Alan Rudge (Con Sutton Vesey) said he would rather not go down the PFI route, but there was no other way of securing funding to put city roads in a decent state of repair.

"We must try to make the best of this for the people of Birmingham," he said.