THE search for a chief constable for Scotland's new single police force has started, with the application process now open.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill described the post –which has a starting salary of £208,100 – as "one of the most demanding and high-profile policing posts in the UK".

The person appointed to lead the new Police Service of Scotland will head up the UK's second-largest force – with more than 17,000 officers and 6500 support staff serving a population of more than five million.

It will be second in scale only to the Metropolitan Police Service, whose commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe receives a salary of around £260,000.

The start of the recruitment process comes less than a month after legislation to merge the eight regional forces was agreed at the Scottish Parliament.

The single force should be in place by April, a move the Scottish Government says will save £1.4 billion over 15 years by removing duplication.

At the moment Scotland has eight chief constables, nine deputy chief constables and 13 assistant chief constables, costing about £3.5 million a year.

The chief constable of the unified force will work with the chair of the new Scottish Police Authority to ensure a smooth transition to the new service.

Names of likely contenders include Stephen House, chief constable of Strathclyde Police, Colin McKerracher, chief constable of Grampian Police, and Justine Curran, chief constable of Tayside Police.

John Vine, chief inspector of the UK Border Agency and former chief constable of Tayside, and Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers and former head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, are also thought to be possible candidates.

Mr MacAskill said there was an "historic opportunity for the first chief constable to shape and lead the new Police Service of Scotland".

He added: "It's a unique and exciting time to be part of the police service in Scotland –recorded crime is at a 37-year low and there are record numbers of police officers in communities.

"Policing in Scotland is already excellent, but the new service gives us a unique opportunity to do more and build on those strengths.

"The role will be one of the most demanding and high-profile policing posts in the UK, leading engagement with the public, private and voluntary sectors across Scotland, the UK and internationally."

Mr MacAskill added: "The new chief constable will be a role model for the values of the police service, providing inspirational leadership, determining the future shape of policing as part of an ambitious programme of public service reform across Scotland.

"We brought forward this appointment to maintain momentum, ensure a smooth transition and leadership of the service through change, so Scotland continues to have an excellent police service fit for the 21st century."

However, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said many people would find the new chief constable's £208,100 salary "difficult to stomach" and he added there were other concerns.

He said: "Eight locally accountable, locally visible chief constables are being replaced by one. I don't understand how the SNP feel they can justify this reduction in service as value for money.

"We've complained centralisation of the police is a dangerous step that puts too much power in the hands of one person. Now there's too much money in the hands of one person."