Policing in Scotland is not yet financially sustainable despite improvements, according to auditor general Stephen Boyle.
A new report on the management and financial structure of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) by Audit Scotland shows an overspend of £26.8m in 2019-20.
This includes an extra £2.2m in March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
A cash injection of £32.9m from the Scottish Government was used to plug the funding gap.
According to projections by Police Scotland, deficits will continue to increase unless “significant action is taken either to increase funding or to reduce the cost of its workforce”.
Plans to reduce the number of officers by 750 by the end of this financial year were scrapped due to fears over risks caused by Brexit.
A report published by the SPA in September showed that, if a 3.25% annual pay increase is given to staff and numbers remain the same, the deficit could be as high as £200m.
The report said: “The Scottish Police Authority is not yet operating to a financially sustainable budget.
“Police Scotland has failed to develop a detailed workforce plan.
“Without firmer progress on these key areas, they will find it difficult to deliver the ambitions of the new joint strategy for policing.”
Mr Boyle said: “The SPA has made progress in the past year whilst faced with the significant additional challenges of Covid-19 and preparing for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
“It is now a matter of urgency that the SPA, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government reach agreement on what needs to be done to achieve financial sustainability.
“Without firmer progress on the key areas of budget balance and workforce planning, the SPA and Police Scotland will not be able to deliver the ambitions of the new Joint Strategy for Policing.”
SPA interim chairman David Crichton agreed with the report, saying: “The Auditor General rightly raises the ongoing financial challenges for policing.
“The authority’s position has been well documented and we remain of the view that the deficit is unsustainable, and without an increase in core budget or a reduction in officer numbers there is no short-term route to eliminating it.
“The authority continues to engage with the Scottish Government and Police Scotland to identify options for delivering financial sustainability.”
The SPA has had significant shifts in its leadership structure in the last 18 months, with both the chairman and chief executive roles being filled on an interim basis after the resignation of the previous incumbents.
Despite this, the report said: “There has been stability in the leadership of the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland, and the authority has made good progress in developing the capacity of its corporate function.
“There has also been progress in relation to organisational governance.”
The Scottish Conservatives accused the government of failing to “adequately plan” for a national police force.
Shadow justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “This report confirms the financial black hole in Scotland’s police service funding that we have been warning the SNP about for years.
“They need to sort it out urgently and provide the funding required for a robust, efficient and modern police service.
“The people of Scotland know our police give everything to keep them safe and we owe those brave officers the resources they need to provide that service.
“Any cuts to frontline services caused by SNP failure would be unacceptable. The SNP created the national force in a rush and failed to adequately plan.
“These funding issues have been known about for years. There can be no more excuses from the Nationalists.”