By WAYNE THOMPSON

The battle of the West begins in earnest today when two supermarket giants try to storm the fortress of the West Auckland Licensing Trusts.

The battle is to win the hearts and votes of 145,000 West Auckland residents in the last area in the North Island where publicly elected district licensing trusts have a monopoly on selling alcohol

The Portage and the Waitakere Trusts have had that monopoly for 30 years.

But supermarket chains Progressive Enterprises and Foodstuffs organised a petition that, with a claimed 42,000 signatures, forced a poll on whether the estimated $12 million annual liquor trade should be thrown open to competition.

On Monday, postal ballot papers will be sent to 70,000 residents in the Portage area and 75,000 in the Waitakere Trust area. Votes will be accepted until noon on Tuesday, February 25.

The supermarkets are plugging the poll as a question of freedom of choice.

The trusts are saying their donations to community groups will disappear if they lose the liquor trading privileges.

Portage is hailing a "back to school bonus" today for a thousand children in its area.

The trust said it would give $1 million to schools in its area, which ranges from Mt Albert to Waitakere, with the Waitemata and Manukau Harbours as its northern and southern boundaries.

Portage deputy chairwoman Janet Clews said the two trusts donated $5.7 million in total to community groups in West Auckland over the past year. In the next decade they planned to donate a further $10 million.

West Auckland community and sporting organisations have formed a Friends of the Trusts group to lobby for voter support.

The trusts employ 400 people in 13 on-licence premises and 28 other outlets. They have combined assets of $30 million and annual sales of $79 million, mainly from gambling Machines.

Foodstuffs managing director Tony Carter and Progressive's Ted Van Arkel said the trusts were misleading people by claiming competition would put their community donations at risk.

Eighty-five per cent of the trust's donations came from gaming machine profits, they said, not from the sale of wine and beer.

There are six supermarkets in the Portage area and eight in the Waitakere area, which includes Hobsonville, Waiatarua, Glendene and Te Atatu.

Trusts chief executive Murray Spearman, a former supermarket executive, said the trusts were confident of community support.

But New Lynn MP David Cunliffe, who supports the trusts, said a lot of people were starting to realise how important the trusts funding was in keeping a network of community organisations.