THE NORTH-East would have a single police force, under a cost-cutting Labour idea floated yesterday (Tuesday) - triggering a row.

Chris Leslie, the party's shadow Chief Treasury Secretary, suggested the current structure of 43 separate forces could no longer be afforded, with years of cuts to come.

And he said Labour would explore recommendations in an independent review of policing, commissioned by the party last year.

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Mr Leslie said: "There are options for change in police structures, including locally-negotiated mergers and regionalisation. We are consulting on the recommendations."

But the idea was immediately rejected by Cleveland's elected police and crime commissioner (PCC), Barry Coppinger, who won the 2012 election on a Labour ticket.

Mr Coppinger pointed out his force already worked closely with neighbouring Durham on key operational issues, including firearms and roads policing.

And he said: "The future of policing and public services generally lies in greater collaboration.

"We already do this in a number of areas and I'm sure we could present, to any Government, a way forward to maintain effectiveness, but within the tight financial constraints."

Meanwhile, James Wharton, the Conservative MP for Stockton South, suggested a single North-East force made little sense - even if there was a case for mergers.

He said: "I've said Cleveland is in the last-chance saloon. If it keeps staggering from scandal to scandal, it may be that drastic action will be needed.

"If we do go down that route, it should be along traditional county boundaries, which would mean part of Cleveland going with Durham and part into North Yorkshire."

Mr Leslie's comments immediately revived memories of the last Labour's Government's doomed attempts to merge police forces, which collapsed in 2006.

On that occasion, Cleveland Police was also the most outspoken force, taking its fight against merger with Northumbria and Durham to a judicial review.

All the forces protested they had been left badly out-of-pocket when the Home Office refused to reimburse the full cost of preparing for the abandoned mergers.

In his speech, entitled 'Public Spending in Tough Times', Mr Leslie also made the case for closer collaboration between emergency services, as well as between local councils.

He said: "For example, in County Durham the fire and rescue service are working with the police to share buildings in Newton Aycliffe."

And Mr Leslie dropped the clearest hint yet that Labour will axe PCCs, written off as a "failed experiment" in last year's review.

He said: "When we are losing thousands of police officers and police staff, is it right that today we spend more on police commissioners than on the old police authorities that they replaced?"

Among other ideas put forward by Mr Leslie was closing local magistrates' courts, moving magistrates into Crown Court complexes instead.