The UK population is now growing by 0.7% every year
The UK population has passed 61 million for the first time, according to the Office for National Statistics.
There were 408,000 more people living in the UK in 2008, taking the population to 61.4 million.
For the first time in almost a decade, changes in birth and death rates have overtaken immigration as the biggest factor affecting population growth.
Overall migration levels – the numbers of people arriving minus those leaving – fell by 44% to 118,000.
This is the lowest level since EU enlargement.
The ONS said this latest increase in population was the biggest in nearly 50 years.
In 1962 the population rose by 484,000 and in 1947 population levels rose by 551,000.
There are now 1.3 million people aged over 85, a record number, who make up 2% of the total population.
There were 791,000 babies born in the UK last year, an increase of 33,000 on 2007, and a figure which is almost twice the rise recorded at the start of this decade.
The population is now growing by 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 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 need 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.
“The British people can be confident that immigration is under control.”
But shadow immigration minister Damian Green 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 from the left-leaning think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, said migration flows go in cycles.
“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 put in place by the government.
“There has been a lot of irresponsible scaremongering about immigration in recent years which was based on the false assumption that high migration was inevitable for years to come.”
But a group of MPs, the Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration, said the population would continue to grow by millions of people.
The Labour MP Frank Field and Tory Nicholas Soames issued a joint statement, saying the fall in net migration may well be temporary.
“Even at the present level of immigration, we are still on target for the UK’s population to exceed 70 million within 25 years,” they said.
“There are no laurels to rest on. The need for firm measures on immigration is unchanged. The public clearly understand this.”
Donna Covey from the Refugee Council said the government had to keep the door open to genuine asylum seekers.
“We must make sure that the focus on strengthening Britain’s borders does not prevent people fleeing for their lives from getting to safety here in the UK,” she said.