Police forces whose most senior officers leave or retire could be stopped from replacing them until elected commissioners take office, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.
The Government is understood to be considering suspending all chief constable appointments until November next year, when policing and crime commissioner elections are due to be held.
The move would require more junior officers to “act up” into chief constable roles, potentially causing huge disruption at a time when forces are battling to overcome deep budget cuts.
It would have a major impact on North Yorkshire Police, where Chief Constable Grahame Maxwell, who has no permanent deputy, has been told his contract will not be renewed next May.
Police sources fear it may also compromise the search for the next South Yorkshire Chief Constable, a position which remains vacant following the retirement of Meredydd Hughes this month.
South Yorkshire Police Authority has already tried to fill the position once, but it attracted only two applicants.
The post has been re-advertised and the deadline for applications was 4pm yesterday.
Other forces affected could include Nottinghamshire, whose head Julia Hodson, a former acting chief in West Yorkshire, intends to step down next September.
Concerns about the proposals have been outlined in a letter, seen by the Yorkshire Post, from the Association of Police Authorities (APA) to the Policing Minister, Nick Herbert.
APA chairman Mark Burns-Williamson wrote: “We are concerned that ‘acting up’ arrangements may have the potential to destabilise existing chief officer teams, especially at a time where forces need strong leadership, stability and the ability to maintain performance.”
Councillor Burns-Williamson, who also chairs West Yorkshire Police Authority, added that temporary promotions would need to be made throughout forces to fill the gaps, “which is less than ideal at a time of significant change”.
It is understood that authorities pleading “exceptional circumstances” would be able to apply to Ministers to make a permanent appointment, but any contract would be limited to two years. No chief constable would be allowed to have his or her contract extended, with the exception of those due to expire before November 2012. They would be given only a one-year extension.
Coun Burns-Williamson said limiting contracts to two years had “some inherent risks”, such as potentially deterring candidates from applying.
Mark Botham, the chairman of North Yorkshire Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said: “We have grave concerns over this at a time of such change for the police service and we want to know how these proposals will contribute towards sustaining good performance at North Yorkshire Police.”
An spokeswoman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “We are in dialogue with the Policing Minister about proposals and the effect they will have on the future landscape of policing.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Parliament has voted in favour of replacing invisible and ineffective police authorities with directly elected police and crime commissioners. They will be responsible to the communities who elect them and it is important their hands are not tied improperly ahead of their introduction next year.”