Britain's population tops 60 million for first time

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The population of the United Kingdom has passed 60 million for the first time, with the fastest growth rate in more than 40 years.

Migration was the single biggest factor behind the rise in the number of people living in Britain, according to official figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). But far from creating economic problems, experts said the increase in immigrants was propping up the birth rate and could allay concerns that the ageing population was leading to a demographic time bomb.

The ONS figures showed that, in July last year, the population of the UK stood at 60.2 million, with 375,000 more people than the previous year. The increase represented the biggest rise in numbers since 1962 and indicated a growth rate of 0.6 per cent, compared with an average rate of 0.3 per cent between 1989 and 1999.

Analysts said the main reason behind the record growth in numbers was the increase in international migration. For the purposes of the population estimates, only people leaving or coming into the UK for more than a year are counted, making the figures different from those released by the Home Office earlier this week.

In the year to July 2005, the number of migrants coming into the UK rose by 11 per cent compared with the previous 12 months, with an extra 59,000 foreign nationals entering the country. Migration from the UK to other countries fell by 2 per cent, with 8,000 fewer British people leaving for a new life abroad.

The net increase in migration - the difference between those leaving Britain and those coming in - rose from 167,000 in 2003-2004 to 235,000 last year; the highest change since records were first produced on the current basis in 1991.

An influx of migrants from countries that joined the European Union in 2004, such as Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic, accounted for the bulk of the rise. In the year before they acceded to the EU, 10,000 people from the eight new eastern European member states entered the UK. In the first 12 months of their membership, 74,000 entered the UK with the intention of staying at least a year, making up a third of all net migration into Britain.

The influx of a new generation of mainly younger migrants has also helped to increase the difference between the number of births and deaths, known as natural change. According to the ONS statistics, there were 10,000 more births and 12,000 fewer deaths in the year to mid-2005 compared with the previous 12 months. Peter Goldblatt of the ONS said: "Had there been no migration whatever, the population would have had fewer births. The numbers of births would not have gone up."

The number of people of working age in the population also rose by 0.8 per cent, from 37.1 million to 37.4 million within the same period. But the population is continuing to age, with the number of people over 85 up by 6 per cent last year to a record of 1,176,000.

The proportion of younger people is declining, with the under-16 population making up 19.3 per cent of the UK compared to 20.7 per cent 10 years ago.

Who's moving where

Migration is not just about the influx from abroad; the population also moves about within the United Kingdom, the figures show.

London's population is growing at a rate of 1.2 per cent each year - the fastest growth of any region in the UK. But 89,000 deserted the capital last year to live in other parts of the country. The South-west experienced the highest net inflow, with 27,000 more people moving in than out. Much of the influx was fuelled by people retiring to the area or those looking for an escape from the urban rat race.

Of the four countries of the UK, Northern Ireland has the fastest-growing population with an increase of 0.8 per cent in the past year.