THERE is an organisation which owns more than 60 of the most prestigious properties in York, together worth £40 million.

And that's a conservative estimate. This same organisation does not hide its desire to grow ever bigger. "The ultimate aim is to own every old building in York," says its chief executive, Philip Thake.

At a time when property development threatens the very history of York, should we be worried about such voracious ambitions?

Not at all. Because this landlord has the best interests of our city at heart.

For decades, the York Conservation Trust has been quietly buying and restoring important old buildings. Many of the properties in its portfolio would have crumbled out of existence years ago had it not been for the trust's intervention.

Instead they have been brought back to their glorious best and rehabilitated as homes, offices, cafs and shops.

"There are other preservation trusts, but quite whether they're family-run or not I don't know," says Mr Thake. "I don't think there's anything as big as ours."

The family concerned, you will be unsurprised to learn, are the Morrells. The York Conservation Trust is yet another legacy for which we must thank former Lord Mayor John Bowes Morrell.

JBM, as he is fondly remembered at the trust, started acquiring old buildings when he bought Sir Thomas Herbert's house on Pavement in 1943. Together with JBM's brother, Cuthbert, he set up the Ings Property Company, a not-for-profit exercise in practical conservation.

It was not until 1976 that this work was given charitable status when it evolved into York Conservation Trust.

The trust owns properties on most of the major thoroughfares, including Walmgate, Micklegate, Low Ousegate, Goodramgate, Gillygate and Stonegate. Among its portfolio are the Red House, Duncombe Place, the Assembly Rooms, Blake Street and two recent acquisitions include Bowes Morrell House, Walmgate, and 56 Bootham, better known as York Register Office.

The £1 million-plus annual rental income allows the trust to keep buying and restoring, even in these days of spiralling property inflation.

"Our aim isn't just to make as much money as we can, our aim is first of all to look after properties," says Mr Thake.

All the trustees are related to John Bowes Morrell. Three of them are his grandsons, and six his great grandchildren. Although they do not live locally any more, they regularly return to York for trust meetings.

The trust owns some of the best properties around, but the one they would dearly love to buy next is not available: JB Morrell's old home, Burton Croft.

Developers Barratt have applied to knock down this Victorian mansion on Burton Stone Lane and build flats on the site. Its original plans were thrown out by the city council and are the subject of a forthcoming public inquiry.

To try to circumvent this process, Barratts has since lodged a fresh planning application, but this still entails the demolition of Burton Croft.

"It's dilapidated but it's been left to rot," says Mr Thake. "That doesn't mean Burton Croft can't be renovated and brought back to its former glory."

Someone who knew the home in its heyday is John Bowes Morrell junior, one of JBM's grandchildren.

"I used to play chess with him," he says. "He wasn't into small talk. I liked him very much.

"I remember particularly the lunches and dinners at Burton Croft, because it was a wonderful big dining room with a huge table which seated I don't know how many people.

"Put at the end was a big table with hot trays and you would help yourself."

But Mr Morrell, 61, admitted he never tried the outdoor pool.

He is right behind the crusade to rescue and revive Burton Croft. "I would be absolutely devastated if it were knocked down."

The York Conservation Trust is leading the fight to save it. JBM helped found York University and Mr Thake says he and his wife left the building to the university for the use of overseas students.

He is not sure quite how it came to be owned by BUPA, which wants to sell it to Barratt. Looking back, he wished a covenant had been put on the property by the Morrells to protect it.

As it is, Mr Thake has embarked on a letter writing campaign.

He has asked the Government to include Burton Croft on its register of listed buildings on the grounds that it was the home of a figure of national importance. Not only did he co-found the university, he started the Westminster Press Group, which ensured the survival of local newspapers across the country.

Mr Thake has also written to Prince Charles and the Duke of York asking for their support.

And, because Burton Croft borders the Clifton Conservation Area, he has asked the council to extend the area's boundary to include the house.

Does he expect to save Burton Croft? "I am not at all confident. I am hopeful, very hopeful, but I know how these things work. As big a trust as we are, Barratts are bigger and more powerful."

He says it would be the ultimate irony if the home of a man devoted to conserving York were to be pulled down.

The campaign certainly has the support of many local residents. A few weeks ago Alison Sinclair, chair of the York Open Planning Forum, asked readers to nominate buildings for a potential "local list" of favoured properties.

Entries extolling the virtues of Burton Croft are still coming in.

A single envelope containing no fewer than 18 votes for Burton Croft was delivered recently. "A wonderful old building which should be preserved for the benefit of the community and provide a memorial to one of York's finest citizens," writes GP Myler of Waggoners Drive, Copmanthorpe.

"A building of this quality and history should not be demolished and replaced by yet another ugly block of flats," say Mr and Mrs W Skilbeck, of Barnfield Way, Copmanthorpe.

The other most popular local list nominee is Yearsley pool. Jean Simpson, of Hazel Garth, Heworth, writes: "It was left to us by Rowntree's and is very important to the people of York. I am 73 and have swum there since I was five years old."

Alison Sinclair gave me this update. "At the Open Forum, when we talked to a city council officer about a local list, we set up a working group to take the idea forward.

"When we have collected all the nominations together, including the ones sent to the Press, we will see if we can decide on some criteria for choosing buildings and suggest how they should be safeguarded.

"Then we will present the whole package to the city council and hope to persuade them to set up the list."

If the views of the people of York really hold any sway when it comes to planning decisions, both Burton Croft and Yearsley pool would be saved for future generations.

Updated: 09:26 Monday, March 22, 2004