Gloucestershire’s surging birth rate: is it something in the water?

The Mail online reported yesterday that the floods of 2007 produced a baby boom in Gloucestershire, forcing the county council to find an extra 200 primary school places this September, at a cost of £600,000.

The truth is that education authorities everywhere are being forced to find extra places in a hurry as a result of a failure to take account earlier of the birth statistics. It seems to have come as a surprise to many that when birth rates rise, as they began to do in 2003, you have to provide extra school places four or five years later. Mike Baker, an education columnist at The Guardian, wrote this week that the shortage of primary places is”a slow-motion car crash”. He’s right, but the problem ought to have been obvious for years to anyone who took the trouble to look.

So is the situation in Gloucestershire any more acute than in other comparable counties? The Mail article reports (correctly) that live births in the county rose from 5,946 in 2005 to 6,730 in 2008. That’s an increase of 13.2 per cent, against an increase for England and Wales of 9.7 per cent over the same period. (Data from Birth Statistics, England and Wales, various years.)

But if we look at other counties in the South West, it’s clear that although Gloucestershire showed an above-average increase in births in that period, it wasn’t exceptional.  In Wiltshire the increase was 12.1 per cent, in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 13.6 per cent. Somerset was close to the national average at 9.0 per cent, and Devon lower, at 7.2 per cent. So Cornwall had a greater increase than Gloucestershire, with no floods.

The increase in Gloucestershire between 2005 and 2008 amounted to 784 extra births over the 2005 fuigure, an average of 261 per year. The increase between 2007 and 2008 was 168 – below the three-year average. So the floods of July 2007 did not have any perceptible effect on birth numbers. Any effect they might have had was to lower them.

Perhaps this is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the underlying data of increasing birth rates ought to be factored into government much more effectively. Nor have the increases stalled, as the 2008 and 2009 figures suggested. Live births in the UK in 2010 were (at 807,271) higher than any year since 1972. Almost all the increase over 2009 was in England and Wales.

Are government and local government taking note? On past form, no.