Opposition groups have sounded the alarm over Barnet Council’s ability to cover the mounting costs of the coronavirus pandemic.

Labour leader Cllr Barry Rawlings warned the Government appeared to be backtracking on an earlier indication it would cover the costs of responding to Covid-19 – meaning council taxpayers could be left to pick up the bill.

And the Liberal Democrats called for more transparency after the council’s finance chief warned that without additional funding the council may need to issue a section 114 notice, signalling it could no longer balance its books.

The Government has so far given councils £3.2 billion to cover the costs of the pandemic, with Barnet receiving £20 million.

In April, after announcing a second tranche of funding for councils to help them tackle Covid-19, local government secretary Robert Jenrick said: “I promised local government would have the resources they need to meet this challenge and today demonstrates my commitment to doing just that.”

But on Tuesday (May 19), in response to a question on the pandemic’s impact on council finances, environment secretary George Eustice told a press briefing local authorities “will always say they need further funding and in situations like this they will have funds set aside for events of this sort”.

Responding to these comments, Barnet Labour leader Cllr Barry Rawlings suggested the Government would expect councils to use their cash reserves to cover extra costs.

Barnet Council’s latest financial plan shows its level of non-ringfenced reserves for 2019/20 is £37 million.

Cllr Rawlings said: “It seems to be rather than a pledge of pound-for-pound support the Government are going to expect the council to fund most of the costs – and that means the council taxpayer.

“I can see them giving permission for a council tax rise next year – they might say the council can raise five per cent as a special measure.

“I don’t think council taxpayers can absorb a big rise in council tax. Hopefully, Barnet’s administration will lobby against that.

“It is not right for local residents, having suffered lockdown, furlough and losing their jobs, to be asked to pay higher council tax because the Government decided not to keep its promise.”

Leader of Barnet’s Liberal Democrat Group Cllr Gabriel Rozenberg said: “Barnet owes us some transparency. We know they do not have the reserves to cover even a small part of the additional Covid-19 costs.

“The council’s own chief financial officer told us there is a risk of a section 114 process – which is effectively bankruptcy – unless they get sufficient funding from central Government.

“We are calling for a full update on the borough’s financial health as soon as possible.”

Cllr Rozenberg pointed out the council is not due to hold a meeting of its finance committee until mid-June and claimed there could have been a meeting in April or May.

Barnet Council leader Cllr Dan Thomas repeated a claim that Barnet Council was in a “strong fiscal position relative to other local authorities going into 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic”.

He added that because projections of the financial impact on the council are changing weekly, it would be “little more than a gesture to organise a committee meeting to discuss these at this point”.

Cllr Thomas said: “We do have a policy and resources committee planned for June, which will be an appropriate time to discuss the resource implications of the coronavirus.

“We do know that dealing with this crisis will cost in the tens of millions of pounds, £20 million of which has already been received from the government.

“We will continue to do everything we can to help those who need it across Barnet – supporting the most vulnerable and keeping vital services running. Where and if necessary, we will continue to ask for financial support from the Government to help meet further unplannable costs”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Council workers are the unsung heroes as we tackle this pandemic and by providing councils with an unprecedented £3.2 billion in the fairest way possible we’re working with them to tackle the immediate pressures they have told us they’re facing.

“Barnet Council will receive £20.25 million of this to deal with the pressures of coronavirus, while its core spending power rose by £18.32 million this financial year even before additional emergency funding was announced.

“The Government will continue to work with councils as they support their communities during the pandemic.”