56% of increase in births from non-British born mothers
'Natural changes' overtake immigration as growth driver
A baby boom and longer lifespan have pushed up population levels by 408,000
A baby boom fuelled by the highest fertility rates in a generation has pushed Britain's population above 61 million for the first time.
There were 408,000 more people living here in 2008, the Office for National Statistics said.
That takes the total population to 61.4 million - an increase of more than two million over 2001.
It is the first time in nearly a decade that natural changes to the population caused by shifts in birth and death rates have overtaken immigration as the biggest factor affecting population growth.
But immigration is still impacting on population growth because 56% of the increase in births last year was from non-UK born mothers.
The vast wave of immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe after the EU expanded in 2004 has slowed to a trickle, as the recession took hold, the figures showed.
Arrivals from Eastern Europe fell by more than a quarter - 28 per cent - from 109,000 to 79,000 during 2008.
More Eastern European immigrants went home in the same period - up by more than 50% to 66,000.
Overall migration levels - the numbers arriving minus those leaving - fell 44per cent to 118,000 - the lowest since EU enlargement.
Chief statistician Karen Dunnell said the emigration was probably due to the economic downturn.
She said: 'You have to say that probably the unemployment and the economic situation, given that quite a lot of people from the A8 (Eastern European) countries are coming to work, is probably having an impact.'
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The last time there was a growth of this size was in 1962, when the population rose by 484,000. The largest ever increase was in the 1947 post-war baby boom when population levels grew by 551,000.
The surge in Eastern Europeans returning home and the decline in arrivals meant they added only 13,000 to the total population last year.
The ageing population meant there were a record number of mid-octogenarians. There are now 1.3 million over 85s, making up 2% of the total.
Statisticians said the increase in birth rates was caused in part by higher fertility rates among British nationals, and in part by immigration, as foreign-born mothers tend to have more children. There are also more women of child bearing age.
There were 708,711 babies born in the UK last year, an increase of 18,698 on a year earlier, and almost twice the rise seen at the start of the decade.
ONS statistician Roma Chappell highlighted the significance of the shift: "That's actually quite exciting because it's the highest fertility rate we have seen in the UK for some time.
"You have to go all the way back to 1993 to find a time when the fertility rate went higher.
"For the first time in a decade natural change exceeded net migration as the main driver of population change."
"Prior to 1998 natural change was higher than net migration. This isn't a new phenomenon for the UK.
"If you go back it was quite common for natural change to exceed net migration as a driver of population growth."
She added: "The balance is still positive so the population is still growing due to net migration but the increase is the lowest it has been since accession in 2004."
"What has driven this is the emigration of non-British citizens especially citizens of the A8 countries."
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.
Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said the figures showed migrants were coming here to work then returning home.
He said: "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.
"Our new flexible points based system gives us greater control on those coming to work or study from outside Europe, ensuring that only those that Britain needs can come.
"Britain's borders are stronger than ever before. Our border controls in northern France are stopping record numbers of migrants reaching our shores - 28,000 in 2008.
"We are rolling out ID cards to foreign nationals, we have introduced civil penalties for those employing illegal workers and from the end of next year our electronic border system will monitor 95% of journeys in and out of the UK."
"The British people can be confident that immigration is under control."
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