'Nurse consultants' will be able to earn more than£40,000 a year, according to guidance about to be issued to English trusts.

The nursing and midwifery staffs negotiating council agreed last week to the terms of an advance letter for the service. It sets out detailed pay scales for the new posts, first announced by prime minister Tony Blair as a way of helping senior nurses to progress without having to give up clinical practice.

There will be a 15-point salary scale starting at£27,460, which is£780 less than the current top point of the I-grade. The maximum point will be£41,970.

Both management and staff sides are now expected to submit supplementary evidence on nurse consultants to the nurses' pay review body.

Trusts will be expected to create new posts and not use the nurse consultant role simply to upgrade existing staff.

In England, regional offices will oversee establishment of the new posts to ensure consistency.

Agreement on the advance letter indicates that concerns expressed by managers and unions that the introduction of nurse consultant posts could cut across negotiations on a new pay system have been allayed.

The agreement stipulates that the advance letter is regarded as interim, to be reviewed either in two years' time or after the introduction of a new pay system.

But NHS Confederation human resources chair Andrew Foster still had doubts.

'The whole point is we are negotiating a system for everybody which has to hang together. To introduce one part of it now is not the right way round.'

Trusts will be able to adapt the nurse consultant pay scales to local circumstances.

They will also have available an extra four points, worth just under£1,000 a year, to reward increased skills, responsibility and performance. Those points will be payable within the scale, but do not apply to a consultant nurse on the maximum level.

The advance letter elaborates on the four core elements of responsibility for nurse consultants, set out in the government's nursing strategy Making a Difference, and confirms that nurse consultants will be expected to spend at least half their time in expert practice.