LARGE-SCALE shipbuilding returned to the North-East yesterday for the first time in more than two decades, bringing thousands of jobs.

Swan Hunter, which has yards on the Tees and Tyne, was named as one of the four principal manufacturers to benefit from the £2.9bn Ministry of Defence contract for two aircraft carriers.

In a highly unusual arrangement, the project will be split between the two rival bidders for the contract - BAE Systems and Thales, which is part owned by the French government.

While BAE will be the prime contractor, responsible for managing the project, the design will be by Thales.

The Thales version of the carrier was chosen as the MoD considers it to be a "strong, flexible design".

The ships would be built by a combination of four yards - Swan Hunter, BAE Systems Marine at Govan, Vosper Thornycroft at Portsmouth and Babcock BES at Rosyth.

Regional development agency One NorthEast last night said the announcement would potentially bring 6,000 direct jobs and hundreds more in the supply chain for the region.

Dr John Bridge, chairman, said: "The contracts would be a huge boost to the renaissance of the North-East shipyards and further strengthen the region's international reputation."

The key for the region will rest in the lobbying ability of companies for all manner of associated sub-contracts ranging from engineering firms to specialist paint suppliers.

Northern Defence Industries (NDI), the body set up to co-ordinate the region's push for procurement work, said 100 North-East companies had registered with both BAE and Thales to help with the contract.

David Bowles, NDI chief executive, said: "This contract provides the North with an opportunity to become Europe's centre of excellence for shipbuilding."

It will be a year before the Government finalises the contract, during which time BAE and Thales will thrash out a detailed blueprint for the next carrier design. The two 60,000-tonne carriers will be designed and entirely built in the UK. They will enter service in 2012 and 2015.

The North East Chamber of Commerce last night described the Government announcement as a real fillip for the region's shipbuilding.

But chief executive George Cowcher said: "We must ensure that as much of the fabrication work as possible comes to North-East companies."

Quite how Swan will divide up its work between the Tyne and Tees has yet to be decided.

It is also thought that Swan could construct carrier sections on the Tyne which could be joined at Port Clarence, Teesside, where it has a bigger facility.

Industry leaders on Teesside are keen to see a share of the cake in the south of the region.

Bob Gibson, chairman of the Tees Valley Development Company, said: "We can be hopeful that significant amounts of work will come to the Tees Valley."

The North-East economy generally will benefit greatly from the announcement.

Kevin Curran, GMB union Northern regional secretary, said: "When I first came to the North-East in 1997, I was told the shipyards were a 'sunset' industry.

"Today we have proved that there can be a sustainable future for our shipyards if we have the leadership, the commitment and the political will to make it happen."