WHEN I looks back on how far the licensed trade has come in the last decade, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride. In fact, I would say our pubs and bars are as good as anything you’ll find around the world.

But it has not always been that way. Around 10 years ago the outlook appeared very bleak as the smoking ban was controversially introduced. While there clearly were winners and losers to emerge from the legislation, there is no doubt it led to dramatic change. The more canny operators saw the opportunity to move into food in a big way, while those that could took steps to accommodate smokers with imaginative outdoor facilities. Interior design became a much bigger priority, and cocktails made a spectacular comeback.

Post ban we laid the framework for so much that is good about the trade today. Service standards have never been higher because of the investment operators have made in staff training, interiors have never been more stylish and welcoming and, because of the huge and growing interest in craft beer and spirits, the product range has never been better. Quality, choice, variety and value are our watchwords.

Yet the stark reality is that the huge progress the industry has made is now under serious threat. First because of the reduction two years ago in the drink driving limit, and now thanks to the huge rises in business rates our outlets face.

Not calibrating the drink driving penalties to fit the lower legal limit has brought the biggest challenge to the industry in my lifetime. It is hard to think of anything else which has shaped consumer behaviour so much. The threat of receiving a twenty year criminal record, a huge fine, a ban and so on, for having small amount of residual alcohol in your bloodstream has changed the drinking habits of the nation - whilst those caught continue to be three or four times over the limit.

Almost overnight, people stopped enjoying a pint after a round of golf or a drink at tea-time after work before driving home. Drinkers have even adjusted how they spent their Saturday nights. They are drinking just a little bit less and eating in restaurants earlier if they plan to get behind the wheel the next morning. They are now too scared of breaching the new limit to take the risk.

I’d say the change to the regulations has also encouraged more drinking at home, an unregulated environment where so much of Scotland’s binge drinking is acknowledged to take place. Latest figures bear this out. 75% of all alcohol sold in the country is sold in off sales At home, there are no experienced bar staff on hand in the home to let you know you’ve had too much to drink as you reach for another glass.

Now, just when I thought things couldn’t get any more difficult, the trade – which has also borne the weight of massive changes to licensing regulations – it is going to be squeezed even further.

It is no exaggeration to say the consequences of the business rates revaluation could be devastating. In fact, we at the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) have never taken so many calls from worried members from a single issue. Our surveys show that some pubs will see increases in their rateable values of up to as much as 400 per cent, meaning thousands will be heaped on their monthly business rates bills.

The situation is especially grave for small hotels, where bills will be going up a staggering 48 per cent on average. The owner of one pub I know has seen the rateable value of his property soar to £81,000 from £20,000 at the last valuation. That means his rates bill will soar from around £9,500 to £40,000. How can that be justified?

But it is not just the fact that bills are going up when trading conditions for pubs have never been so tough that sticks in the throat. The licensed trade is treated unfairly when it comes to rates because, unlike other businesses, turnover is taken into consideration when our bills are calculated. That gives rise to situations where giant supermarkets, which account for the overwhelming majority of alcohol old in Scotland, will see their bills actually drop this year, in many stores, while small licensed premises will see theirs rise significantly.

That the assessors take pubs’ turnover into account in calculating rates also acts as a brake on enterprise. What incentive is there for an operator to invest in improving their business and grow sales when they know they will get hammered by business rates?

Do we want our pubs and bars, which are so important to the economy to jobs and the country’s tourism effort, to flourish and thrive? Or do we want misguided legislation to drive them to the wall?

It is time for all our licensed premises to be given equal treatment to other businesses, and to pay rates which are in tune with the trading realities they face.

Paul Waterson is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association.