A CAMPAIGN to save North-East and North Yorkshire police forces from the threat of merger was launched by the Liberal Democrats yesterday.

They warned that vital local knowledge of crime problems would be lost if the Home Office implemented proposals to amalgamate forces.

Activists at the party's Blackpool conference were urged to send a "hands off" message to Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

The merger threat emerged last week, when a study warned no force with fewer than 4,000 officers could tackle the new threats of terror and organised crime.

That list includes Cleveland (1,772 officers), Durham (1,700) and North Yorkshire (1,566). It could lead to the creation of a single North-East force, bringing Cleveland and Durham together with Northumbria (4,088).

Another suggestion is to divide Cleveland into two, with the rural south of the force area joining with parts of Yorkshire and Humberside.

Mark Oaten, Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, won applause from delegates for calling for a grassroots campaign to save local forces.

He warned: "We should be making more local, not more distant. People want to have the confidence that police know the area, that chief constables will visit and know every town and village in their area."

Mr Oaten accepted that some smaller forces struggled to cope but insisted mergers were the wrong way forward.

He said: "We say keep the forces as they are, but provide a national resources unit with senior officers and experts to provide back-up in complex cases."