The Role of York Conservation Trust, Past, Present and Future

In October 2023, Guy Bowyer took on the role of Trust CEO. A Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Conservation Architect, Guy joined the charity in 2015 and knows the building portfolio inside out, regularly speaking to groups about the Trust’s foundations, purpose and daily activities. Taken from a recent talk, in this article Guy takes us through the Trust’s early beginnings, aims, funding model, past and present work, together with its future potential as a key player in the City of York.

York Conservation Trust is a Building Preservation Trust and its main aims include the preservation and regeneration of historic buildings. A non-revolving trust, we retain properties and lease them to generate an income which feeds back into building maintenance, preservation and enhancement.

It’s often said that if you are in the City of York, you are never far from one of our buildings. Some of the most well-known are Fairfax House, the Assembly Rooms, York Theatre Royal, St Anthony’s Hall and De Grey Rooms. The architectural mix and age of our properties varies widely, from medieval and Tudor townhouses, Georgian and Victorian buildings to modern architecture, including the iconic 1967 extension to York Theatre Royal by Patrick Gwynne.

Most of our properties are in the centre of York with only four found outside the City: the Thompson Mausoleum at Little Ouseburn and three homes in Goathland. You can spot our properties by the little roundel sign that is usually displayed by the front door.

The Trust we operate today began as Ings Property Company established in 1945 by two brothers, Dr John Bowes Morrell and his brother Cuthbert. Twice York’s Lord Mayor, JB also co-founded York Civic Trust, as well as playing a key role in the founding of the University of York in the early 1960s. Although he refused a knighthood, JB was delighted to become an Honorary Freeman of the City and remained a tireless campaigner for the betterment of the York until his death in 1963.

In 1976, under the leadership of John’s son William, the property company was converted into a charity and renamed York Conservation Trust. Until last year all Trustees were descended from John Bowes Morrell, continuing his good work.

Our charitable objectives permit us to operate, not just in York, but also across North Yorkshire. Alongside the preservation of historic buildings for public benefit, our objects require us to provide access to historic buildings for public enjoyment. We achieve this by dedicating a small portion of our portfolio to provide holiday accommodation for visitors to York and also in support of education for heritage crafts. We do this though annual academic awards and grants to heritage organisations that support the development of these important skills.

Our Trust is headed by the Board of Trustees and non-executive volunteers who oversee the governance and strategic nature of our work. Planning, finance and day to day activity is headed up by the CEO supported by a six person staff team split across Operations, Finance and Buildings.

Gradually acquired since the 1940s, currently, the Trust has 76 buildings, only a handful of which are not Historic England listed. With a multi-million pound annual turnover, we have over 120 tenancies, which currently are roughly half commercial, half residential with another six properties made available as holiday lets.

The last two decades' focus on growth saw less money spent on maintenance, which has led to long-standing and complex repair issues across many of our buildings. The impact of COVID19 also saw a reduction and write-off in some rental income, as tenants struggled to pay rents, more properties became vacant and larger commercial buildings becoming more problematic to lease.

In 2021 a Strategic Plan to adjust how we fund our operations was formed, which included a halt on acquisitions and a decision to sell some properties to manage our increasing risk and fund the mounting repair bill. In 2024 a full review of our portfolio of buildings was completed, highlighted the need to spend around £20 million on our properties over 10 years. Through careful planning we hope we will be able to provide the majority of funds from our rental income. We anticipate, however, a shortfall in funding and the need to explore fund raising opportunities through grants, sponsorship, partnerships and collaboration.

Sustainability too is very important to us. Our Climate Change Policy aims to promote the benefits of historic buildings and find sensitive solutions to ensure York Conservation Trust’s properties are comfortable, cost effective to use and resilient to the changing climate. You may be surprised to learn that older buildings can be just as good at climate change adaptation, if not better then modern ones, although unfortunately some older buildings are simply not well equipped to deal with increased rainfall intensity and extreme temperatures.

York has 2,000 listed buildings, with around 10% located in the city centre, so it’s very important that we work hard to look after them. Through sensitive adaptation and energy efficiency, new technology and materials, we can support their continued value and use as an integral part of our cityscape. To this end the Trust hopes to expand its collaboration and engagement activities to meet the challenges it’s facing in the 21st century.

We hope this has given you a good snapshot of York Conservation Trust. Please explore our website further for information on our many wonderful buildings and some of the people who work and live in them, meet our team, and find out more about the Trust’s history.

We enjoy welcoming visitors to York with room hire in our landmark city centre offices at De Grey House and our unique holiday accommodation.

Come and be part of York's history. We look forward to welcoming you. 


Dr John Bowes Morrell, twice York's Lord Mayor and co-founder of Ings Property Company, the forerunner of York Conservation Trust.

We support education for heritage crafts though annual academic awards and grants to heritage organisations.

Our unique, historic buildings are part of our commercial tenants' brand stories and an attractive draw to York's many visitors.

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