Police chiefs have announced ways to reduce their budget shortfall without affecting front-line cover, accusing ministers of "short-changing" the force.

Durham's chief constable, Paul Garvin, has ordered a pruning operation after the Home Office's annual grant settlement left the force £3.6m short of its spending targets for the coming year.

Mr Garvin believes it has "short-changed" Durham, following the force's recent success in reducing crime.

He feels Durham and other "well-run semi-rural forces" have been penalised, with funding weighted towards larger metropolitan areas with higher crime rates.

The Home Office is giving Durham Constabulary £87.4m of funds in 2005/6, a 3.7 per cent increase, including a £240,000 rural policing allowance.

Added to the revenue intake from council tax payers, limited to a five per cent maximum increase by the Government, this amounts to a £105.4m total budget.

Mr Garvin said every effort would be made to maintain front-line cover, but that steps must be taken to ensure efficiency.

These include putting a stop to civilians carrying out police work, which otherwise would have allowed more officers to be freed up for beat duties.

"We are putting all our efforts into keeping bobbies on the beat because we know what the public want," Mr Garvin said.

"It has taken us more than ten years to raise our strength from 1,350 to more than 1,700 officers and it's an achievement we're anxious to protect.

"While we've managed to minimise the impact for the next financial year, it has been a painful exercise.

"We do not believe it is something we can repeat and we will be making early representations to both the Home Office and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

"Both the force and the police authority have been severely constrained by the restrictions placed on us by the Government's five per cent limit on increases.

"Some high-crime urban forces have been rewarded by the Home Office at the expense of some well-run semi-rural forces, like Durham, where crime has been falling year on year.

"Both we and the police authority feel we are being penalised for our past prudent financial management."

Efficiency savings, as well as changes in borrowing, have helped to claw back the force's deficit by more than £2m, while almost £2.5m from reserves will help to cushion the impact of rising pension costs.

But internal budgets are still to be cut, with subsidies affected for catering at police stations, and at the headquarters sports complex.