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History > 2009 > UK > Demographics (I)




Birth rate pushes UK population

to greatest increase in almost 50 years

As population tips 61.4 million,
birth and death rates overtake immigration
as biggest growth factor for first time since 2001


Thursday 27 August 2009
14.05 BST
Sam Jones
This article was first published
on guardian.co.uk at 14.05 BST
on Thursday 27 August 2009.
It was last updated at 14.05 BST
on Thursday 27 August 2009.


The UK experienced its greatest population increase in almost half a century last year, with higher birthrates pushing the number of people living in the country above 61 million for the first time. The growth came despite a fall in immigration from eastern Europe.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 408,000 more people in Britain in 2008 than in the previous year.

That takes the total population to 61.4 million an increase of more than 2 million since 2001.

The last comparable increase was in 1962, when the population grew by 484,000.

For the first time in nearly a decade, changes in birth and death rates have overtaken immigration as the biggest factor affecting population growth. The increase was driven by a baby boom as fertility rates have reached their highest level for 15 years.

Statisticians said the increase was caused partly by higher fertility rates among British nationals, and partly by immigration, as foreign-born mothers tend to have more children. There are also more women of child-bearing age in the UK today.

There were 791,000 babies born in the UK last year, an increase of 33,000 on a year earlier, and almost twice the rise seen at the start of the decade.

Despite the increase in births, the 2008 figures lag behind those of 1947, when the postwar baby boom pushed up population levels by 551,000.

Roma Chappell, an ONS statistician, described the latest figures as "quite exciting".

"You have to go all the way back to 1993 to find a time when the fertility rate went higher," she said.

"For the first time in a decade natural change exceeded net migration as the main driver of population change."

Babies, however, are not the only boom sector of the population; there are now 1.3 million over-85s, making up 2% of the total.

The population is now growing by a rate of 0.7% every year, more than double the rate in the 1990s and three times the level of the 1980s.

The population rise was the greatest since modern records began in 1972 and more than twice the increase of 2001, when the population rose by 201,000.

The new figures also suggest the global recession has had a dramatic effect on European migration to the UK, with a net fall of 44% to 118,000, the lowest since EU enlargement five years ago.

Arrivals from the so-called A8 eastern Europe countries that joined the EU in 2004 fell by 28% from 109,000 to 79,000 in the year to December 2008.

The number of eastern European immigrants who went home in the same period, meanwhile, was up more than 50%, to 66,000. The number of A8 workers registering for employment in the UK fell 42% to 116,000 in the year to June this year.

The surge in Eastern Europeans returning home and the decline in arrivals meant they added only 13,000 to the total population last year.

Karen Dunnell, the ONS chief statistician, said the departures were probably due to the economic downturn.

"You have to say that probably the unemployment and the economic situation, given that quite a lot of people from the A8 countries are coming to work, is probably having an impact," she said.

Phil Woolas, the border and immigration minister, said the figures showed migrants were coming to work in the UK and then returning home.

"The fall in net migration is further proof that migrants come to the UK for short periods of time, work, contribute to the economy and then return home," he said.

He added that the government's flexible, points-based system had ensured that the UK had more control over who came to work or study in the country.

However, the shadow immigration minister, Damian Green, accused the home secretary of "sleeping on the job" over population growth and failing to properly control immigration.

"Alan Johnson says he doesn't lose sleep over Britain's population growth. Perhaps he should, instead of sleeping on the job," he said.

"These figures show our population is still rising fast, even when the recession is driving hundreds of thousands of people to leave.

"This puts added pressure on housing and transport, and shows that there is still no proper control over immigration numbers."

Tim Finch, head of migration at thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said the figures showed high immigration levels were not inevitable, and attacked "irresponsible scaremongering" surrounding the issue.

"These latest figures for 2008 indicate that after a number of years in which net migration was high, it is now declining sharply almost certainly because of a combination of the economic downturn, the short-term nature of much migration from new EU countries, and the impact of stronger controls and management put in place by the government," he said.

Finch said that immigration tended to be cyclical and added that much of the debate had been based on "the false assumption that high net migration into the UK was inevitable for years to come".

He went on: "Migration flows go both ways and we now need to be thinking about how our managed migration systems can continue to attract and retain the migrants we need to help our economy to recover and grow."

Birth rate pushes UK population to greatest increase in almost 50 years,