Yesterday's story of the fate of the Polish ex-services club is a sad story of Canberra in change. The ideas, the social needs and the circumstances that bind people together change over time. Mostly we are better off. But we are not necessarily better connected to each other.

It has an especial Canberra aspect, because in the two decades of growth that established the vibe of the city, great efforts were made to connect virtual strangers to each other. We wanted to build strong communities from next to nothing. If there was a city in which more was done, and so successfully, to foster birth and development of clubs and community groups, I have yet to hear of it.

This was because everything - every one - was new. If we go to a Sydney or an Adelaide, we move into established suburbs, networks, facilities, families and social structures. But as Canberra tripled in size between 1955 and 1970, there was little that was established, and much had to be created. We were pioneers together. A generation earlier, the very first public servants to come had had to do much the same, but their Canberra was quite different from the new suburbs being turned out by the National Capital Development Commission.

We have outlived many of our old associations and community groups. Sometimes we have built new ones. But we are not building new ones, or new social capital, at anything like the rate at which we are letting old ones wither, die, or become lost to their original purpose, and no longer part of the glue that makes communities out of individuals, molecules out of atoms.

We see it with the decline of political parties as member-based organisations. And the progressive collapse of service and fraternal organisations as a war generation enters its 90s and old groups such as the Masons or Rotary struggle to attract younger members. Or in sport and recreational groups, civic groups, ethnic and common-experience groups, job-related organisations, church-related groups, and other groups and organisations based around hobbies, hobby-horses, education, aesthetics, the environment and fun.

All are losing members, and not only to old age, faster than they are replacing them. Some have tried to reorganise and refocus to deal with an internet age, including forming online interest groups. Mostly even these survive only if they let the type of participation required of membership, and its cost, drop dramatically. Those which have become bigger and more businesslike (such as the Southern Cross Club and Labor Club) have tended to become far more anonymous, less member-focused, and less organised around the ideas which originally created a club, and united its early members.

In many cases, the problem is aggravated by poker machines, and by the pretence that clubs are non-profit-making entities feeding their surpluses back to the community or the common purpose.

Surviving clubs are often run by hard-nosed professional executives, remote from and virtually unaccountable to memberships, protected by powerful lobbies and close connections to politicians and bureaucrats. Instead of providing social capital simply by existing, their clubs make regular but paltry donations to community groups as a way of claiming exemption from proper corporate supervision and close scrutiny of whether or how they serve the public interest. Most manage under legislation designed to promote gatherings of amateurs, all knowing each other, not multi-million dollar operations. Sometimes ''community purpose'' is subverted by service arrangements, nepotism and diversion of profits.

This is a long way from how a group of people with a common bond - say of coming from the same country in Europe - decided to turn their informal get-togethers into something more organised. Such people raised money by chook raffles. Later they got allocated a free block of land in a developing suburb by a government keen to encourage a sense of social togetherness. Such people often physically built the original club premises by voluntary work on weekends. They manned a bar with rosters of volunteers. They had no poker machines with which to fleece the least intelligent of their members. They ran card nights, bingo, dances and other functions to make the bringing of people together an occasion for fund-raising for special projects. Members knew each other; an important part of membership was being part of the group. The politics were often intense.

When such clubs were being formed, there were fewer women in the workforce and an average of less than one car to a family. Life was far more organised around the neighbourhood. Houses were smaller: one purpose of the club was so that people could entertain their friends. This became obsolete as the people of Canberra developed houses on average (considering the average occupancy) occupying more cubic metres than anywhere else in the world.

Not everything about the decline of clubs and community groups is bad. Nor is the even greater decline in personal participation in community groups. It is, in part, a function of growing up. But dealing with legacies of associations past their use-by date is political and contentious - and, at the moment, it is not the public interest which is winning. The politicians know it, but are going along for the ride. Some parties are compromised by their club connections.

Clubs whose purposes or reasons for existence fail own valuable real estate originally given free. They have also valuable poker machine licences. As the movie Crackerjack showed, they are prey to smarties looking at the potential for redevelopment.

Only rarely does amalgamation, ''rescue'' or takeover of small clubs lead to any long-term improvement of the community benefit, or social capital, that saw the clubs develop in the first place. Instead the real estate soon becomes part of a redevelopment proposal, accompanied by lobbies for a no-cost change of the lease purpose. That's a government appropriation to those who control the particular club - but it is not done transparently or in an open marketplace. Often the interests which will benefit - rugby league and rugby in particular -have been in net, been big takers, not givers, so far as the public purse is concerned. It would be far better if land were surrendered, with compensation for assets paid. If a club deserves public subsidy - for that is what it is - to do a commercial development, Treasurer Andrew Barr should give them the money by an appropriation bill, and let it be debated against other priorities of government.

Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.