It is two years since Cleveland Police appointed a new chief constable, with hopes that the dark days of Operation Lancet could be consigned to history. Neil Hunter talks to the man charged with turning around the fortunes of the force.

SEAN Price yearns for the day when words such as "troubled" and "cash-strapped" are no longer attached to his police force. The chief constable is sick of hearing Cleveland Police described as a force in crisis when he feels he's done so much to improve its image and performance.

Mr Price must have felt more like a firefighter than a police chief when he took over from Barry Shaw two years ago and, at the age of 45, became one of Britain's youngest chief constables.

He had inherited a force described, among other things, as the most controversial in the country and the worst in the land. It was disorganised and morale was at rock-bottom after a series of investigations into officers.

And if Mr Price had hopes of making an immediate impact, he was dealt a sickening blow just months into the job when a financial black hole was discovered. Effectively, the force was committed to more than £7m of spending for which it didn't have the finances.

Mr Shaw was already in the process of dismantling The Change programme - a legacy of the previous regime - when the financial problems surfaced. The Change was intended to take the force in a new direction in the post-Lancet days, but had been heavily criticised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary as badly thought-out.

Still, he insists he had no regrets about swapping his role as deputy chief constable in Nottinghamshire for what many saw as an unenviable job in Cleveland. He maintains he knew what he was inheriting and had no shortage of people prepared to give him advice on how to tackle the seemingly endless problems.

Rejecting suggestions the chief constable's job was a poisoned chalice, Mr Price says: "I simply saw it as a challenge.

"When I came here there were a number of things I regarded as a challenge and I saw this as a force with an awful lot of potential that was not being reached.

"We had a whole group of people trying really hard who were, perhaps, not getting recognised for what they were doing because of other concerns and getting fairly heavily slated in the Press."

Mr Price's high-profile arrival was maintained when he visited numerous community meetings on Teesside and went out on patrol with his officers to get a feel for his new beat. He was anxious to appear media-friendly and approachable, and to improve morale which had been dealt blow after blow throughout the long-running corruption inquiry, Operation Lancet.

Mr Shaw's programme for change was changed, officers were told how valued they were, the public were assured there would be improvements to the service they received, and things got off to a reasonable start.

Mr Price replaced Change with Putting People First and declared an intention to have the force on a firm financial footing by 2010 and achieve a sound professional performance.

The force had been criticised for the way it dealt with calls from the public with only 60 per cent being answered in the expected time - ten seconds for 999 calls and 30 seconds for non-emergencies. Mr Price made this failing a priority and latest figures show 97 per cent of calls are now answered within the time set out by Government targets.

Improvements to technology have resulted in officers spending more time on the frontline instead of at their desks doing paperwork, and crime levels have fallen in each of the past ten months.

Thirty more police community support officers will take to the streets as part of a new campaign called Don't Walk By, with the specific goal of tackling anti-social behaviour, while work is beginning soon on new stations.

On top of that, an additional £300,000 has been awarded by the Government for further communication improvements.

All of these achievements are having an effect on public perceptions and the happiness of the force's 1,700 officers and civilian staff.

Mr Price says: "I was able to look at it from the outside and despite the advice I was given - some of which was quite interesting - I could see it was not about cars or equipment or strategies.

"What was right at the root of what was happening was that we had a lot of hard-working men and women who make up Cleveland Police who, over a number of years, had been striving away and, perhaps, their good work and their needs had not been as clearly recognised as we might like.

"There were other things going on within Cleveland Police that were distracting the management and the eye was off the ball. The force and the police authority would agree that the eye was on these inquiries more than it was on what the rest of the staff were doing."

Mr Price was determined to make people more important than probes and set about putting right the past wrongs when the £7m deficit was unearthed in January 2004.

"That was obviously a big set-back," he says. "But, in hindsight, it was also an opportunity to move things on more rapidly than might have been done otherwise. We certainly had to really examine exactly how we were spending and what we were getting for every penny."

In the aftermath of the black hole discovery, the force appointed a new chief finance officer and a recruitment freeze was put in operation. An Audit Commission investigation blamed "a culture of unbridled growth" for the problems.

An review of overtime and the shedding of dozens of police support staff posts have also helped turn the tide, and now Mr Price's force is focused on getting better use of the resources currently available - rather than asking the taxpayer to continue to come up with more money.

The police precept on council tax bills has risen by 27 per cent and 34 per cent in the last two years, but will go up just five per cent this year.

Mr Price says: "We very much recognise that every penny we get comes out of the public purse and, particularly in an area like the North-East, we have to be really careful of how we use that money because it has been hard worked for."

The days of spend, spend, spend appear to be over and the force seems to be more cash-conscious than cash-strapped, more transformed than troubled.

Mr Price is in danger of seeing his wish come true if Cleveland Police continues down this road of financial frugality.

"I am a professional police officer who cares about what he does and it hurts when it is suggested that your force might be the worst in the country," he says.

"I was more hurt for my people because some of the things that were being said were not accurate and they had been pulling their guts out to ensure an improved performance.

"The extra £300,000 from the Home Office was a great vote of confidence in us and if we had been the worst in the world we would not have got it.

"The reasons we got funding and the other forces didn't was because of our performance and the measures we had already taken to get our house in order."