HOME Secretary John Reid is being asked to investigate plans to reduce the police presence in Weardale.

John Shuttleworth, Durham county councillor for the area, says he has heard that senior officers plan to move a sergeant to work in another area when the Durham force introduces five shifts in a day rather than its current four.

He fears the move could lead to the area losing its police presence altogether and to crime rising, but the force says nothing has been finalised and that the sergeant could be replaced by another officer.

Councillor Shuttleworth, who has written to Mr Reid, said: "Going back some 12 years, Weardale was policed by a sergeant and eight officers, and some five years ago this was reduced to four officers and a sergeant, but also included Tow Law.

"It is my understanding that this is now to be reduced to three officers, which will make the job of policing such a wide, rural community very difficult, and more so 24 hours a day. In fact, it is suggested that at some point there will probably be no police officers on duty, which rings alarm bells in my ears.

"Given that the county taxpayer contributes approaching an amount of £500,000 from this area, I feel that we will be getting short-changed and left vulnerable to the unscrupulous.

"If we are paying that money and not getting a service, we should get a rebate on the council tax we pay to the police authority.''

Coun Shuttleworth said that the plans did not sit well with the force's stated policy of "neighbourhood policing'' and that he feared it could lead to crime increasing.

He said he feared that the future of Stanhope police station, the last station in Weardale, could be in doubt again.

It was bought from the force three years ago by Stanhope Community Association, which leases space back to the force.

Superintendent David Cromarty said: "As is widely known, the force is introducing a revised shift system in the new year for officers on core or 'frontline' duties.

"One of the benefits should see more officers available at the busiest times, especially nights and weekends.

"As part of that process, the ratio of supervisors to core staff is being looked at across a number of areas, including beat units. However, no firm decisions have yet been taken.

"In the event of supervisory staff being moved from beat units to core duties, we would look to replace them with additional beat or community support officers, who would continue to provide a high visibility presence in the community."