A LEADING expert has backed the idea that Scotland's shipbuilding industry would be better served by constructing small defence vessels and ferries rather than relying on Westminster for military orders.

Stuart Ballantyne, a Scottish naval architect based in Australia, who this month received an honorary degree from Strathclyde University for services to the global maritime industry, said the country has the skills and infrastructure to establish a commercial covered shipyard which could be used to produce ferry designs for an export market.

His comments support Alf Baird, professor of maritime business at Napier University, who recently suggested that under independence, Scotland's shipbuilding industry could have a more sustainable future by building around 100 ferries in the next two decades to serve island routes and around small and medium-sized coastal defence craft.

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The question of Scotland's shipbuilding future has been one of the battlegrounds in the independence referendum camapaign. Pro-Union campaigners claim that thousands of jobs would be lost as UK defence contracts would not be awarded to a ''foreign'' country.

Ballantyne, managing director of Queensland-based marine design and consulting firm Sea Transport Solutions whose designs are used in 46 countries, said he was not taking a stance in the independence debate.

He said: "If a proposal is good for Scotland, I would support it. If a proposal is good for the marine industry, I would support it. Whoever proposes to govern with this in mind, and action it, I would support them."

He said he had met with Scottish Government ministers in 2008 to discuss his ideas.

Ballantyne suggested a shake-up of ferry services in Scotland could include privatising routes run by Government-owned Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), but added "political will" was needed to take on the unions. "Governments should be facilitators, not owners and operators," he added.

Baird, who is a member of group Academics for Yes, has previously argued that Westminster plans for future warships are not enough to sustain the number of shipyards or shipbuilding jobs north of the Border.

"Scotland needs to build its own ships for coastal defence, as well as ferries, and a substantial number of both types, never mind the opportunities in other markets such as offshore and cruise shipping," he said. "With independence we should be ensuring the capacity is in place for these vessels to be built in Scotland and, given our skills, we should be confident of our ability to succeed in this market.

"This sort of approach would ensure shipyard employment for the foreseeable future. With Westminster's hands remaining on the economic tiller, however, such orders and opportunities will simply never exist."

But a spokesman for Better Together said: "This is absolutely typical of the Yes camp. Never mind that the people who own the yards, the trades unions and the workers have said that leaving the UK would be disastrous for Scottish shipbuilding - they are all wrong. No matter what the topic, everyone else is wrong and only the nationalists are right. It simply isn't credible."

He argued staying in the UK gives Scottish yards access to contracts such as the recently-launched HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was assembled at Rosyth and built by workers at six dockyards across the UK, including Govan and Scotstoun on the Clyde.

"Only the nationalists want to put this at risk," he added.

Steve Todd, national secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), welcomed Ballantyne's comments on establishing a commercial shipbuilding yard.

But he added: "CalMac is a public service, it is a lifeline service and it provides the essential services which communities need. We would say it is wrong to even think about privatising these services in any shape or form."

A spokeswoman for Transport Scotland confirmed ministers had met with Ballantyne during a ferries review process, which has since been completed. She said £146.8 million had been allocated in 2014-15 to support ferry services.

She added: "Ferry services subsidised by the Scottish Government are already put out to tender to ensure continuity of service, affordable fares and best value. There is no intention to privatise CalMac."