Public control of business enterprises went right out of fashion in the free-wheeling 1980s, as Governments of the left and right rummaged through the public linen cupboard looking for anything to sell off.

In the frenzy, they even forced the sale of things they didn't own, like the community-owned Auckland Savings Bank.

Now it's hangover time, with the remains of Air New Zealand back in public hands and growing clamour for the renationalisation of the stricken rail system.

Private enterprise, it turned out, was not quite the panacea it was cracked up to be.

It is in this revisionist atmosphere that the supermarket giants Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises have launched their offensive against the Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trusts.

These two community-owned trusts have a legal monopoly on the sale of liquor in West Auckland and the grocers are desperate for a slice of the $80 million-a-year action.

Last Monday voting papers went out in a referendum forced by the supermarkets to ascertain whether locals want the community monopoly to be retained.

What the supermarkets are offering is "freedom of choice". In reply, the trusts are pledging $80 million in grants to local good works over the next decade.

It is an ambitious promise. Last year, they managed only a $5.7 million handout but now say they are expecting better results in coming years.

Even if this ambitious target is not met, last year's return to the community seems a lot better than the grocers' airy-fairy promise of freedom of choice and undetailed claims about their past charitable donations.

For those who grew up in the selfish decades of the late 20th century, the concept of a community trust must seem anachronistic - or at best, a quaint relic of more good-neighbourly times.

Certainly you would be hard-pressed to get majority support for setting one up these days, as proponents discovered in Mt Eden and Mt Roskill a couple of years ago.

But hopefully, Westies will have enough self-interest to resist killing off the quaint goose that has been laying golden eggs for local causes for the past 30 years and is promising to try even harder in the future.

The grocers, of course, are trying to play down the impact an end to the trusts' monopoly would have on donations to local charities.

They are claiming that 98 per cent of the trusts' donations to community groups come from profits from gambling machines, not from wine or beer - the trusts say it is 85 per cent - and that as a proportion of pokie profits are required by law to go to charity anyway, it won't matter if rival bars set up in competition.

As a result, says a grocers' spokesman, "the community distribution programme will basically be unaffected".

The trusts' response to this is that they give between 52 and 54 per cent of their gaming machine profits to charity, while private bar owners give only the legal minimum of 33 per cent.

In addition, the trust money benefits people living within trust boundaries. Funds from private pokies can go to people living anywhere.

I confess to being a little stunned by the part the ubiquitous gaming machines plays in the trusts' life. However, it seems the situation is far worse elsewhere.

In Waitakere City - home of the trusts - there is one machine for every 525 people. About half of those are in trust premises, the rest in Returned Services Association rooms and sports clubs.

In New Zealand as a whole, there is one machine for every 171 people.

In Manukau City, the figure is one to 264, in North Shore it's one to 380 and in Auckland, one to 175.

Trust spokespeople point to neighbouring Pt Chevalier as the salutary writing on the wall.

It abandoned its "dry" status three years ago and now has one gaming machine for every 124 people.

The trusts suggest a similar explosion of gambling machines in their area if the monopoly is broken.

Whether that means more people playing the pokies, or just the same number of players having more choice of venues, I don't know.

What does seem clear, though, is that a proliferation of bars and liquor outlets will lead to plummeting profits at the trusts.

That in turn, will lead to reduced levels of hand-outs to local causes such as Plunket, which gets a lump sum that enables the parent of every young Westie to buy a car seat for just $25. Another example is the $4.5 million contribution to the proposed West Auckland Sports Stadium.

Sure it is an odd concept, a community getting together to fund local health, sporting, educational and art projects by claiming a monopoly for itself over the sale of liquor.

But why break something that works?

The grocers claim that only four other such monopolies exist nationwide and that makes the concept outdated.

Then again, we were once told that public ownership of Air New Zealand and the railways was outdated, too.

I think better words for the phenomenon would be unusual, or unique, or smart.

Of course if the grocers were to commit themselves to a yearly donation to community projects matching what the trusts deliver, then I might accept "outdated" after all.