• Patrick Shearer: 'savings need to be balanced with the impact'
A working group set up by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos) into potential force structures beyond 2013 to 2014 has concluded that having only one force offers "the greatest platform to enable investment in frontline policing".
Any moves to merge Scotland's police forces have in the past failed because of fierce opposition.
But given the current economic climate, Scottish Government has committed itself to reducing them in number, although it has ruled out a single service and the working group's recommendation was strongly criticised last night by some leading police officers.
The study found a single force would mean savings of 194m a year, compared with an estimated 139m that would be saved by merging the eight current forces into either three or four regions.
At present Scotland's forces are only tasked with making savings of 2.6 per cent next year. But with the Scottish Government refusing to commission a study forecasting policing numbers beyond next year, it is not known how much of the 194m might be reinvested in frontline policing and how much might actually represent a cut.
The paper, which will be presented to the Scottish Policing Board, chaired by justice secretary Kenny MacAskill on 6 December, reveals that the total cost of Scottish policing is 1,413m.
It says: "The aim of the Sustainable Policing Project is to develop rigorously appraised options for further cost savings in policing, to enable frontline policing outcomes to be sustained beyond 2013-2014 in the face of anticipated spending reductions."
The paper has been heavily criticised in the north-east of Scotland. Martin Greig, convener of the Grampian Joint Police Board, said: "That's spin. Until there are robust figures which explain where this saving would be made then this whole exercise is a waste of time. It's fantasy finance.
"A robust business case must be made before we even consider restructuring. Centralisation means the north-east will become more and more vulnerable to crime. I am sure there is already planning going on in criminal circles to further target the north-east."
The paper was the subject of an angry meeting at Northern Joint Police Board (NJPB). Under the plans the highest ranking officer in the region would be a superintendent based in Inverness - four ranks lower than the chief constable who currently runs the force - while the islands would be run by police officers of inspector rank.
The Northern board is demanding members of the working group travel north to discuss the plans with them.As well as the blue light models - the merger of all emergency services within regions - advocated by some in Highland Council, Northern Police has suggested a model where it would take on Moray and parts of Argyll and Bute.
Norman Macleod, convener of the Northern Police Joint Board, said: "That was not examined. Instead they are talking about merging Northern and Grampian, where we would be the junior partner.
"If they go for just one force, Inverness would have one superintendent and the islands would have an inspector. That's not acceptable."
The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (Asps) backed a single force last week, on the condition that savings are ploughed back into frontline and community policing.
However, Superintendent Innes Walker of Grampian Police, revealed divisions. He said: "There are significant reservations from our members in relation to the Asps national position of supporting a single force structure."
Chief Constable Patrick Shearer, president of Acpos, said: "The work to assess the potential economic benefits is still at an early stage and the projected savings will need to be balanced with the impact the change will have as well as the cost of implementation. There is no doubt that the delivery of policing is more important than boundaries but change has to demonstrate and ultimately deliver value for money, better governance and an improved service."
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "The Scottish Government will consider all of the evidence before deciding on a way forward but we will put bobbies on the beat before existing police boundaries."