SOS! Save our Shipbuilding, that is the loud and clear message that has gone out to the government from the South as the battle to save the industry and hundreds of local jobs was launched in Southampton.

With one voice the region is telling the government in no uncertain terms to ensure it acts fairly over the way lucrative work is to be divided up over the £6 billion order to build the next generation of warships for the Royal Navy.

Leaders of both Southampton and Portsmouth city councils yesterday joined MP's, trade unions and business executives in an unprecedented show of unity at Vosper Thornycroft's shipyard marking day one of the Campaign to Safeguard South Coast Shipbuilding (CSCS), which is also being backed by the Daily Echo.

The campaign was put on a war-footing amid fears that shipbuilders VT could see work on the new Type 45 destroyer disappear to rivals, BAE Systems Marine.

That would give the UK defence giant a virtual monopoly of warship construction for the Navy.

Ministers are expected to make a decision on the shipbuilding issue within the next few weeks.

The new campaign group intends to take its message to government and persuade the Ministry of Defence that it is in the taxpayers' long-term interest for competition to exist throughout the Type 45 programme, which is set to last more than ten years.

VT says that up to 650 jobs at the Southampton yard directly rest on the government sticking to its previous position, outlined in July last year, which is that the shipbuilder will assemble the second Type 45 destroyer in the class and there will be competition for the subsequent ships.

VT chief executive Martin Jay said: "We have seen in the past the effects of a monopoly situation in UK warship building.

"The only way to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money is to have two capable contractors competing for the right to build these expensive and highly sophisticated ships.

"We hope that the government will keep its word and recognise not only the importance of competition in the home market but also VT's unrivalled track record in export success.''

BAE Systems Marine, which operates yards on the Clyde and in Barrow, has made unsolicited proposal to the government to build all 12 destroyers despite Whitehall's stated intention that VT would share in the design and construction work.

Although building of the Type 45 would mean VT closing its long established Woolston shipyard and moving to a new site in Portsmouth, Southampton City Council is at the leading edge of the campaign.

Council leader June Bridle said: "We must safeguard the interests of Southampton people, but we must also consider the severe impact on the whole city region if this contract goes to Scotland.

At the forefront of the campaign is the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA) supported by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.