In a interview with the Independent, Keith Hellawell, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire police, described the current laws on prostitution as "absurd".
He said licensed brothels would get prostitutes off the streets, allow health checks, and could be taxed. They would also help to prevent children from becoming involved in the sex industry.
"As a society, we have to start thinking in different ways. I think the time has come to have legalised brothels that can be properly controlled," he said.
His proposals, which have growing support among sections of the police, were immediately condemned by the chairman of the House of Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee who said they were the first step towards a moral decline, which would encourage more women to become prostitutes.
At present, it is only illegal for a prostitute to work in a public place. A woman selling sex on her own in a premises is not breaking the law. Only when two or more women work from a private property is it deemed to be a brothel, which is illegal.
"By outlawing some forms of prostitution we are operating double standards. It's either morally wrong or it's not," Mr Hellawell said. "From a moral standpoint I don't support it and would rather it did not happen, but it does, and I think the legal controls we currently have are not realistic.
"I think we ought to have legally controlled brothels. We ought to control prostitution for the security of the females and to safeguard health. [Brothels] could also be taxed and the Government could get some revenue for it. I can't see any disadvantages except the one that says prostitution is wrong."
Mr Hellawell, who runs one of the largest provincial forces in the country, with more than 5,000 officers, pointed to Edinburgh council's policy of licensing saunas and massage establishments, which are known to be used by prostitutes, as an example of a possible way forward. He admitted that his officers were unlikely to target such premises.
In Bradford, West Yorkshire, the city with the largest number of prostitutes whose violent world was portrayed in the television series Band of Gold, similar premises used by women to sell sex are rarely raided.
"Like most forces, unless we have complaints about a particular establishment, we generally leave them alone," Mr Hellawell said.
Sir Ivan Lawrence, the Tory chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs, is strongly opposed to changing the existing law.
"There's always been pressure from those who want to weaken the social fabric of society," he said. "If you make something legitimate you give a push and encourage that activity. We should hold on to the barriers [in society] for as long as we can."
Other European cities have devised their own ways to deal with prostitutes.
In Budapest, the Hungarian government is examining the economic possibilities of prostitution. A law under debate would turn prostitutes into businesswomen who would have to pay tax on their earnings.
According to a recent report in the Economist, police estimate that Hungary has 10,000 prostitutes who take home an average wage of 300,000 forints (more than pounds 1,000) a month, which is a handsome salary compared to the take-home pay of most Hungarians.
This works out as roughly half a per cent of the country's GDP. Hungary has also won a name as the porn capital of Eastern Europe. Little of this industry is taxed at present.
However, residents of Turin in Italy are so enraged by the amount of streetwalkers who parade through the city that riots have broken out between prostitutes and protesters.
Prostitution remains a highly contentious issue in Italy, which abolished its state-controlled brothels in 1958.
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