POLICE chiefs have warned they may be forced to cut officer numbers unless the Government helps cover an £8m financial black hole.

Although Durham Constabulary believes it can protect front-line officers in the short-term, the force admits cuts may become a reality in the long-term.

The warning comes as the force prepares for the biggest transformation in its history - amalgamation with Northumbria and Cleveland.

Durham Constabulary's plight was highlighted in the House of Commons by Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods earlier this week.

Police Authority officials said they would do everything to prevent manpower cuts.

However, a letter from finance director Patrick Melia - seen by The Northern Echo - warns this can only be sustained in the short-term.

The force has been forced to dip into its cash reserves for about £4m to make up a deficit in the coming financial year.

It has also drawn-up plans to cut budgets by £2m in the coming financial year.

Mr Melia said: "As it is, we are looking at using our reserves in the budget next year and we are also looking at making cost reductions of about £2m.

"The cuts are not in police officer numbers, but rather in support services like repairs, and maintenance, as well as in subsistence allowances, car allowances. So we will be protecting police force numbers in the first instance."

Unless the Government comes up with more money, the cash deficit is expected to grow.

By 2008/09 it could be as high as £8m and Mr Melia admitted tough decisions would have to be taken.

There are fears that a financially struggling Durham force could have serious repercussions for a proposed amalgamated "super force."

Mr Melia said: "This will impact on the performance of the force as it will require a reduction in police officer and police community support numbers, a reduction in overtime and a reduction in civilian staff."

He said the force was in discussion with the Home Office over funding - a central issue being the financing of pensions.

He said the Home Office had chosen a year when the force was using reserves toward pensions and had taken this as normal expenditure levels, which was not the case.

In the current financial year, the force has a total budget of £105.4m, £87.4m of which came from the Goverment. The Durham Police Authority will set its precept next Friday.

Home Office minister Paul Goggins said: "Several authorities are concerned because their police grant reduction was based on a notional pension deficit in 2005/07 - a year of historically high retirement and net pension costs.

"However I am not persuaded that any reasonable alternative approach would have been fairer overall, so I have not altered the method for calculating the change between the old and new systems."

North Durham Labour MP Kevan Jones said: "The vitally important thing is that, as part of the reorganisation of the police force, this low baseline funding Durham has had has got to be addressed.

"Myself and Roberta Blackman-Woods are continuing to press the issue with the Home Office."